Running On Emptiness
RUNNING ON EMPTINESS 2002 JOHN ZERZAN
P.O. Box 13067
LOS ANGELES, CA 90013
INFO@FERALH OUSE. COM
DESIGN BY LINDA HAYASHI
viii Introduction, by Theresa Kintz
1 Running on Emptiness:
the Failure of Symbolic Thought
17 Time and Its Discontents
42 Against Technology
53 That Thing We Do
67 Enemy of the State
95 Abstract Expressionism:
Painting as Vision and Critique
109 The Age of Nihilism
1 1 5 Postscript to Future Primitive
re the Transition
1 20 Age of Grief
1 24 In Memoriam
1 32 Why I Hate Star Trek
136 PBS, Power, and Postmodernism
140 Who is Chomsky?
144 "Hakim Bey," Postmodern "Anarchist"
147 City of Light
149 We All Live in Waco
151 Whose Unabomber?
156 Domestication News
158 We Have to Dismantle All This
161 He Means It. Do You?
163 How Ruinous Does It Have to Get?
165 How Postmodernism Greases the Rails
168 So ... How Did You Become an Anarchist?
197 No Way Out?
Running On Emptiness
by Theresa Kintz
This collection of essays from civilization's most cogent living critic
demands consideration. Consideration of the indisputable fact that no
matter where you're from ten thousand years ago your ancestors were stone-
age anarchists. Consideration of the significance of how for 99 percent of
human history people walked gently on the earth, lived free in harmony
with wild nature and each other accomplishing everything they needed
to accomplish in their daily lives using a stone, bone, wood tool
technology. It demands we consider why all artifacts have politics and
how when we use tools they use us back. It requires we consider how
human nature was originally one and part of a whole and now we
lament that we are lost and alienated from one another.
It is in this context that we are then forced to consider the follow-
ing questions: What are the origins of this estrangement? Why do we
ignore the nature of our own bodies and minds? Who decided we needed
mechanization, electricity, nuclear power, automobiles or computer
technology? Has one single man-made item been a necessary improvement
on the earth? Why do we put the survival of all species on the planet in
peril for our exclusive comfort and gratification? How did we come to
dedicate our lives to maintaining this mad tangle of supply and demand
that we call civilization? And finally, what will it take for us to give up
on the artificiality of our grim modern lives and cleave instead to what is
For two decades, author John Zerzan's research has focused intently on
these issues. As one of only a handful of scholars to do so seriously,
Zerzan is the most important writing from a definitively anarchist point of
view. His work has contributed to the development of a perspective
that seeks to merge anarchist socio-political analysis with radical deep-
green environmental thought, engendering a revolutionary green
anarchist outlook with a dual focus on social and environmental issues
and the interplay between the two. Inspired equally by anti-authoritarian
and radical green viewpoints this dynamic and
thought -provoking analytical framework has come to be referred to as
anarcho-primitivism (AP). Some essential elements of the analysis are:
• Society as we know it now in the industrialized world is
pathological and the civilizing impulses of certain dominant
groups and individuals are effectively to blame.
• Trends in communication towards acts of symbolic repre-
sentation have obstructed human being's ability to directly
experience one another socially, and alienated us from the
rest of the natural world.
• Humanity basically took a wrong turn with the advent of
animal domestication and sedentary agriculture, which laid
the foundation for the exploitation of the earth, facilitated the
growth of hierarchical social structures and subsequently the
ideological control of the many by the few.
• All technology besides the stone-age techniques of hunter-
gatherers is inherently detrimental to social relations and set
the stage for the ecological catastrophe now being brought on
by the technoindustrial system.
While AP aspires to inform and enlighten with regards to the
anthropological and archaeological knowledge it imparts, the primary
purpose is to articulate non-negotiable social discontent and exhort and
incite revolutionary social change. Illustrating how contemporary society
is the product of thousands of years of social struggles and complex tech-
nological changes demonstrates that the current state of affairs we find
ourselves in is neither inevitable nor desirable in light of what is known
about cultural processes. Anarcho-primitivist thought and action is
intentionally provocative. Zerzan is not arguing for "going back," rather
he is arguing for going forward, towards a future primitive. Green anar-
chists who will shun identification with all "isms" (perceived as categori-
cal constructions imposed by the civilization they struggle against) are
unified by the recognition that it is important not only to understand the
genesis of the totality in theory, but also to decide for oneself how to
effectively resist in practice and do so. And there is no place where theory
has been put into practice more successfully than in the Oregon community
John Zerzan has been a part of since 1 981 .
X Running On Emptiness
It was in 1 999 that Eugene moved onto the frontlines of the green
anarchist movement in a big way after mainstream media noticed the
community's vocal support of the noting Black Bloc during the anti-
World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. The "Eugene Anarchists"
quickly received widespread notoriety with Eugene subsequently dubbed
"the anarchist capital of America." An appearance on the TV news
magazine 60 Minutes followed by interviews with major magazines
meant the intense media attention went on unabated for months.
Those of us who had been around for a while couldn't remember a
time when the words anarchy and anarchist were bandied about more in
popular culture. The fact it was mostly in association with the truly radical
anarchism of the anarcho-primitivists inevitably caused a backlash from
within the more conventional anarchist community. The AP perspective,
despite being the most vibrant and active, remains a contested point of
view, as traditional anarchists continue to press on with an anti-
authoritarian agenda designed to appeal to a disaffected proletariat, focusing
on distribution of wealth and class dimensions of contemporary society
rather than the fundamental structures that engender it. Within these
circles the AP perspective is perceived as too extreme, the critique of
technology too radical and the prescriptions for social change impossible to
ever actualize. Still, anarcho-primitivists have persisted in confronting the
old guard in the pages of radical periodicals like Green Anarchist (UK),
Green Anarchy (US), Black Clad Messenger, Disorderly Conduct, Live Wild
or Die and the Coalition Against Civilization newsletter Species Traitor.
Their use of thought -provoking, impudent and absurdly humorous agit-prop
to communicate specific elements of their profound critique is a self-
conscious affirmation of their commitment to blatant incitement. Nothing is
sacred and that is the point.
Eugene was also the home of the Earth FirstUournal from 1991 to
2000. It was a time that saw this once vital radical periodical slide into
a pattern of liberal-oriented, uninspired hand-wringing as Zerzan often
pointed out in its letters pages. But in large part due to the journal's
presence a unique intersection of some very special people occurred there
in the mid-nineties. It was the successful Warner Creek forest defense
campaign that first drew the scores of young people who would leave
their homes in cities to take up precarious existence hundreds of feet off
the ground in tree villages. In 1 998 a new occupation with a
Intro du c t i o n
more chaotic and anarchic bent was initiated at Fall Creek outside Eugene.
The Red Cloud Thunder treesitters spent their days and nights in
constant vigil, sometimes going for months without ever touching the
ground, using their bodies to protect the centuries-old stands of ancient
forest destined for lumber mills in the Pacific Northwest.
Once these forest defenders had excommunicated themselves from
civilization and taken up residence in communal social groups in the
woodlands they came to identify completely with this landscape. It was
reflected in their daily interactions with one another and with the
forest. The stories and poetry they wrote in defense of the wild were
poignant and affective. Their desire to reject modern industrial society
was utterly authentic, heartfelt and spiritual. They were deliberately re-
wilding themselves through acts of confrontation and defiance, and
fundamentally changing their lives.
The activists in the trees were intimately familiar with the various
elements of environmentalist discourse and many had gone through a
progression from "shallow ecology" — a commitment to recycling, sup-
porting local conservation projects, becoming vegetarians, to a "deep
ecology" — rejecting reformist approaches, losing faith in legal means of
protection, and finally questioning the foundations of industrial society
in general. Some, disenfranchised and disenchanted bourgeoisie, had
majored in environmental studies where they learned the essentials of
biology, chemistry, physics, etc., but found the scientistic ecological
analysis profoundly lacking from political and spiritual perspectives. Some
were working-class urban runaways searching for a way out of the cage
of civilization, looking for a community of resistance where they could
share skills and fight the good fight for the wild. What they all had in
common by the time they went to live in trees was a feeling of profound
affinity with wild nature and, a desire to immerse themselves in natural
systems, to come to a degree of understanding that would never be
achieved in crowded industrial urban environments or by reading books
and attending lectures. What they desired was a sense of place, a feeling
of connection to all living things. For the Fall Creek forest defenders taking
direct action in defense of the wild was not about abstract political
arguments or scientific rationale, it was about truly doing away with the
nature/culture dualism, rejecting civilization and defining one's self as a
member of the community of all beings.
xii Running On Emptiness
At the same time activists who remained in urban areas were thor-
oughly rejecting the lifestyle it dictates. Their resistance took the form
of declaring liberated zones within the confines of the cities. In addition
to Zerzan's Whiteaker neighborhood in Eugene that provided essential
ground support for the trees, there was also the Minnehaha Free State in
Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minnehaha was particularly significant with
respect to the unique alliance local Earth First! activists established with
indigenous Native Americans there. The joint occupation began at a
prehistoric archaeological site due to be destroyed by a highway re-route
when a group of Earth Firsders and members of the Mendota tribe began
squatting in evacuated houses just before demolition. The Minnehaha
Free State was an intentional community where an atmosphere of
mutual aid and fellowship flourished. Supported by many in the
surrounding local community, the coalition of activists confronted the
state and held up the road project for several months until the governor
sent in the National Guard to remove the protesters in what would be
the largest police action in Minnesota history.
This is just a brief description of the social context in which the
essays in Running on Em p tiness were written in the years between 1995
and 2001. Most premiered in the pages of those radical periodicals
that Zerzan regularly contributes to. This current compilation contin-
ues the work began in previous volumes, Future Primitive and Elements
of Refusal, by looking into possible ways out of this dismal ascent into
violence, oppression, hatred, environmental exploitation and human
misery that is civilization. As I write this introduction in the autumn of
2001 the world is apparently gearing up for Running on
emptiness, indeed. Interestingly, heads of states are referring to what is
going on as a "clash of civilizations" — how true, for a change. The regimes
currently challenging the West's supremacy are authoritarian entities no less
civilized than capitalist America. The only differences between the
combatants are down to access to resources, position in global power
structures and technological sophistication. It's been going on like
this for thousands of years. Even a cursory overview of history shows that
as long as civilizations have existed they've made war on each
other — always have, always will. As usual there will be no real
revolutionary potential as both sides promote ideologies based on control,
repression and fear.
Current analysis of the situation barely scratch the surface, leaving the
underlying causes for this persistent pattern of confrontation unexamined.
America and its allies with their ahistorical blinders on arrogantly view
Western civilization as invincible. Rest assured, so did the Egyptian
Pharaohs, the Roman Emperors and the Ottoman Caliphs ... but where
are they now? Did the Mayan peasants or leaders envision their city-states
someday covered by jungle (perhaps the peasants actually did, is that why it
happened)? What do we really expect someplace like Manhattan or
London will look like in 500, 5,000, 50,000 years? The truth is that as
long as skyscrapers, military industrial complexes, investment bankers and
jet airplanes exist the possibility exists they'll collide. It was inevitable that
one day the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as physical
manifestations of imperialist America's economic power and military might
would someday lie in ruins. It has just happened sooner rather than later. In
light of recent events it seems more important than ever to reflect on
what is at the foundation of this clash of civilizations and John Zerzan's
work provides an important starting point.
Our general understanding of ways of life in the past has been radi-
cally altered from the once dominant Hobbesian view of pre-civilized life
as nasty, brutish and short, when civilization was thought to be a neces-
sary condition for making us better humans. Rethinking the characteris-
tics of the categories of primitive vs. modern is one of the main themes
of the opening essays which address, in various terms, the failures of
symbolic thought. As Zerzan argues, when we removed ourselves from the
direct experience of the sensual world through reification, time and
language we became less stimulated by our senses. As we immerse our-
selves in the world of objectification and abstraction, we see the triumph
of the symbols for reality over the reality of experience itself.
The false consciousness of symbolic representation and its conse-
quences are evidenced in the domination of nature, division of labor, co-
ordination of action, standardization of technique, institution of social
and ritual rules and finally, industrial behavior. It is this constellation
of cultural practices that precipitated, as Zerzan writes, "the fall from
simplicity and fullness of life directly experienced" resulting in the
alienated society in which we now live. By seeking to understand the
process by which this came about, Zerzan continues his anarchoprimitivist
project of demystifying this alienation, speaking in terms of
xiv RunningOnE mp t i n e s s
watershed events, moments where decisions were made, cultures chose
paths, resistance to the civilizing impulses was overcome and the next
stage of the domestication of humans and of nature was attained. It is
an accumulation that buries each stage under the rubble of ideology and
legitimization so that one sees only the surface with eyes conditioned by
It is undeniable that modern socio-political organization, material
culture and resource distribution has become so complicated that scholars
in any field of study would be hard pressed to make sense of the root
causes or potential effects. But should this preclude us from trying? In
the part of North America where Zerzan lives small groups of
egalitarian, stone-age hunter-gatherers were getting along just fine until
confronted by the first Europeans less than 200 years ago. Now wage
slaves there pay taxes, drive to work in cars and return to electrified
homes at night to check email on computers and watch satellite TV
reports on cloning. How did this happen?
Working as an archaeologist for the last decade, I've observed first-
hand how 14,000 years of continuous Native American occupation left
the scant legacy of ephemeral hearth features, delicate spear points and
broken pieces of pottery prehistoric archaeologists study. But what lies
on the land now, after only a few hundred years since colonization and
industrialization? ... superfund sites, nuclear warheads, factory farms,
denuded forests, poisoned rivers and dying industrial towns with
already crumbling inner-cities. Archaeologists recognize how all this
alteration of matter our society engages in now is unprecedented in
terms of the scope of the distribution and essential durability of the
composite materials modern technology is capable of creating. One
thing archaeology demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt is that
there is no such thing as "away" when one speaks about throwing things
like arrowheads, broken dishes, glass, spent nuclear fuel, asphalt,
refrigerators, autos, computers, diapers away. What is going to be the
fate of all these concrete, plastic, metal, toxic, complicated, real, mate-
rial, empirical objects our modern material culture produces? It
appears that most people operate under the mistaken impression that
these things our culture is so busy making are going to be functioning
"forever," or at least a modified version of them will be. Archaeologists
know that's not likely to be true and we confront the enormity of this
realization every day. The simple truth is that every generation of humans
to come is going to have to deal with the complex social and
environmental impacts of our modern civilization.
Zerzan should really be commended for his efforts toward taking the
data and theory being produced by archaeologists and trying to make it
relevant to us in the real world. It is possible to construct some very
cogent arguments against civilization using worldwide archaeological
research as evidence, as Zerzan demonstrates. Archaeologists themselves
could become very effective social critics of rampant technological
change, hierarchical class systems and unsustainable industrial devel-
opment if they chose to interpret the evidence they study in such a
light. By focusing on certain issues addressed in archaeological theory
like the effects of over-exploitation of resources surrounding human
habitations, the outcomes of increasing social stratification, the conse-
quences of proliferating complexity in material culture and resource dis-
tribution, the potential for conflicts as a result of scarcity, etc., one can
come to some very different conclusions about the wisdom of the pro-
technology, pro-industrial agenda the dominant forces in Western culture
have deemed progressive and in the global society's best interest.
Unfortunately my academic colleagues are reluctant to engage in the
kind of political debate Zerzan is trying to start, yet I know that none
in the field could deny that all of the so-called achievements of man are
only monuments to overwhelming pride and hubris, as he so plainly
argues. Everybody, not just the archaeologists, knows people managed to
live perfectly fine for thousands of years without electricity or
automobiles — what better evidence than that can you have that it is
possible? It is our involvement in society that creates the false percep-
tion of such needs. Here the Green Anarchist tendencies expressed in
the AP analysis emerge as the remnants of a bygone consciousness with
the potential to re-awaken the immediacy of life and the affinity with
wild nature that humanity experienced in pre-civilization.
Zerzan has written in great detail about how technology now props
up the totalizing system of capital that has emptied the meaning from
everyday life. While Zerzan has much in common with other contemporary
critics of technology such as Ellul, Marcuse and Adorno, he is
unwilling to let this domination of the machine over our daily lives go
unchallenged. The fact that he had enough guts to be the lone
xvi Running On Emptiness
voice of dissent in front of an audience of technology cheerleaders at
Stanford University is telling of how he views his work. Insisting tech-
nology is neutral, like many anarchists do, allows one to avoid demon-
strating it is positive or negative. The armed-to-the-teeth U.S. Right
says, "guns don't kill people, people kill people" but obviously if guns
didn't exist no one would be killed by guns. Guns are not neutral; they
are weapons of death when they are used at all. Neither is technology
neutral; one can cite a multitude of ways our commitment to keeping
the technoindustrial system in running order exerts insidious control
over our daily lives. Technology assists the state in its repression of
dissent, decreases human freedom and happiness, destroys the natural world
and turns all of us into biomechanical appendages of the megamachine.
The dual commodification of labor and of time, as Zerzan points
Out, is relentless and he calls for a negative reconsideration of time from its
initial role as a socially learned symbolic abstraction through to the
notion of linear time and progress to the subordination of the working
class where time is money. Time's reckoning alienates us from the
present and from experiencing the rich wholeness of unmediated existence,
separating humans from the ebb and flow of being by mathematizing our
very being with its all consuming measuring presence and insistence on
perfect and universal ordering.
In the middle section of essays Zerzan addresses postmodernism.
His critique of radical relativist tendencies is much needed and com-
pelling. He begins with an explanation of why he hates Star Trek and
finishes with a swat at post-modern intellectual ostriches "confident to
only contemplate what appears within their limited field of vision,
ignoring the past and present in favor of the always tentative and
mostly uncritical examination of the parochial and the particular and
rejoicing in its own depthlessness." The essay on how PBS "program-
ming" (the very word!) leads us all toward a more manageable society
does much to undermine its public-interest pretense by highlighting
how well the content suits those who maintain the system of class and
capital. Picking up on the popular media's christening of the youth of
the '90s as the generation "that couldn't care less" JZ comments on
how our age of nihilism, post-modernism's essential accomplice, is
evidence of the widespread social pathology of civilization.
While post-modernism has indeed become very adept at deconstruction
Zerzan is correct to argue it fails miserably as a philosophical discourse
when, overwhelmed by the complexity of history and society, it
proclaims "Why bother with truth if nothing can be done about reality
anyway." His scathing critique of nihilist post-modernism would send
shudders down the spines of leftist academics if they had any. And speaking
of leftist academics, Zerzan asks in one essay, "Who is Noam Chomsky?"
Well, not an anarchist anyway ... a left-leaning professor with little time
for questioning authority, technology or anything as radical as that,
perhaps? And "Who is Hakim Bey?" A hip PM cynic evidently happy with
the totality of oppression and its physical manifestation technology,
perhaps? Zerzan slices through Bey's thick anti-primitivist rhetoric to
reveal a thinly veiled racket in Bey's Temporary Autonomous Zone spiel.
Several of the essays address what lengths the ruling order will go to
deny reality, e.g. a modern psychiatry that ignores the very real
strains and stresses of life in the technoindustrial prison. In preferring to
treat the individual as in need of re -programming to better meet the
requirements of the system that oppresses rather than encouraging
efforts toward liberation the profession attempts to narcotize the
populace into accepting their lot in life. It is a tactic that reduces human
suffering to an aberration with biological or genetic roots and is a horrific
example of the pathology of civilization.
This collection also contains a series of short, sharp essays offering
fresh perspectives on current events, e.g. the meaning of Waco and
Jonestown and the reactionary response of leftists to the gauntlet thrown
down in front of civilization by FC. The profound anti-civilization
argument put forth in the anarchist essay Industrial Society and Its
Future (the so-called Unabomber Manifesto) brought to mind atti-
tudes held by many involved early on in the Earth First! movement
who, like FC, realized it was industrial society itself that posed the
most significant threat to Mother Earth and human freedom. It was
disappointing to see how quickly vocal minorities within the radical
green and the anarchist milieus sought to distance themselves from
FC's campaign against the exploiters. Not Zerzan, though, and his
support of Kaczynski has never wavered.
Those who know him personally know John always talks with people
about his ideas, not to them. In "Enemy of the State," inter-
XV 1 1 1
Running. On Emptiness
viewer Derrick Jensen notes that Zerzan both defies the stereotype of
the bomb-throwing anarchist and shrinks from the role of guru by refusing
to play the wise old anarchist handing down pearls of wisdom. Their in-
depth discussion offers clarification of some of the more general and
persistent misunderstandings surrounding the anti-authoritarian, anti-
civilization critique. Along with the autobiographical sketch, "So How
Did You Become an Anarchist?" (a previously unpublished, welcome
addition to this collection), these two pieces shed considerable light on
the author's past and present. In writing about himself a perhaps overly
modest Zerzan leaves much out, but does present a brief overview of his
Catholic family roots, forays into the educational system, intellectual
catalysts, social experiences with labor unions, the Situationists and various
radical publications, his gradual embrace of anarchism, his relationship
with Kaczynski and life in the anarchist community of Eugene.
Zerzan's use of an academic (yet accessible) writing style and copious
citations from primary research material means he is sometimes accused
of asking a lot of the -reader, as if presenting something as complex as an
analysis of all of human history would ever be easy. No, he is not writing
the "The History of Civilization for Dummies" — because he does not
view his audience in those terms. But you don't have to have a Ph.D.
in archaeology to understand the points Zerzan is making. Prehistory is
all around us, it is there for everyone to observe and contemplate. Don't
believe me? Please get up now and go gaze out of the nearest window for
a moment. Imagine the same landscape there before you 10,000 years
ago and just think about what the lives of the people living there would
have been like. Turn off the radio and television, unplug the computer
and the telephone, look past the concrete, tune out the noise of the
traffic and visualize what it must have been like living in an ecologically
sustainable, socially harmonious world. The question of how we got from
the stone age to the space age should be of interest to all human
inhabitants of planet earth. Zerzan argues that in understanding the
primitive past we take the first step toward rejecting the pathological
present and actualizing a future primitive. It is a radical idea that certainly
deserves our consideration.
RUNNING ON EMPTINESS : THE
FAILURE OF SYMBOLIC THOUGHT
To what degree can it be said that we are really living? As the substance of
culture seems to shrivel and offer less balm to troubled lives, we are led
to look more deeply at our barren times. And to the place of culture
itself in all this.
An anguished Ted Sloan asks (1996), "What is the problem with
modernity? Why do modern societies have such a hard time producing
adults capable of intimacy, work, enjoyment, and ethical living? Why is
it that signs of damaged life are so prevalent?" According to David Morris
(1994), "Chronic pain and depression, often linked and occasionally
even regarded as a single disorder, constitute an immense crisis at the
center of postmodern life." We have cyberspace and virtual reality, instant
computerized communication in the global village; and yet have we ever
felt so impoverished and isolated?
Just as Freud predicted that the fullness of civilization would mean
universal neurotic unhappiness, anti-civilization currents are growing in
response to the psychic immiseration that envelops us. Thus symbolic
life, essence of civilization, now comes under fire.
It may still be said that this most familiar, if artificial, element is the least
understood, but felt necessity drives critique, and many of us feel driven to
get to the bottom of a steadily worsening mode of existence. Out of a
2 Running on Emptiness
sense of being trapped and limited by symbols comes the thesis that the
extent to which thought and emotion are tied to symbolism is the measure
by which absence fills the inner world and destroys the outer world.
We seem to have experienced a fall into representation, whose depths
and consequences are only now being fully plumbed. In a fundamental sort
of falsification, symbols at first mediated reality and then replaced it. At
present we live within symbols to a greater degree than we do within our
bodily selves or directly with each other.
The more involved this internal representational system is, the
more distanced we are from the reality around us. Other connections,
other cognitive perspectives are inhibited, to say the least, as symbolic
communication and its myriad representational devices have accom-
plished an alienation from and betrayal of reality.
This coming between and concomitant distortion and distancing
is ideological in a primary and original sense; every subsequent ideology
is an echo of this one. Debord depicted contemporary society as exerting a
ban on living in favor of its representation: images now in the saddle,
riding life. But this is anything but a new problem. There is an
imperialism or expansionism of culture from the beginning. And how
much does it conquer? Philosophy today says that it is language that
thinks and talks. But how much has this always been the case?
Symbolizing is linear, successive, substitutive; it cannot be open to
its whole object simultaneously. Its instrumental reason is just that:
manipulative and seeking dominance. Its approach is "let a stand for V
instead of "let a be a." Language has its basis in the effort to conceptualize
and equalize the unequal, thus bypassing the essence and diversity of a
varied, variable richness.
Symbolism is an extensive and profound empire, which reflects
and makes coherent a world view, and is itself a world view based upon
withdrawal from immediate and intelligible human meaning.
James Shreeve, at the end of his Neanderthal Enigma (1995), pro-
vides a beautiful illustration of an alternative to symbolic being. Medi-
tating upon what an earlier, non-symbolic consciousness might have
been like, he calls forth important distinctions and possibilities:"
"... where the modern's gods might inhabit the land, the buffalo, or
the blade of grass, the Neandertal's spirit was the animal or the
The Failure of symbolic Thought
grass blade, the thing and its soul perceived as a single vital force, with
no need to distinguish them with separate names. Similarly, the
absence of artistic expression does not preclude the apprehension of
what is artful about the world. Neandertals did not paint their caves
with the images of animals. But perhaps they had no need to distill
life into representations, because its essences were already revealed to
their senses. The sight of a running herd was enough to inspire a
surging sense of beauty. They had no drums or bone flutes, but they
could listen to the booming rhythms of the wind, the earth, and
each other's heartbeats, and be transported."
Rather than celebrate the cognitive communion with the world that
Shreeve suggests we once enjoyed, much less embark on the project of
seeking to recover it, the use of symbols is of course widely considered
the hallmark of human cognition. Goethe said, "Everything is a
symbol," as industrial capitalism, milestone of mediation and alienation,
took off At about the same time Kant decided that the key to philoso-
phy lies in the answer to the question, "What is the ground of the rela-
tion of that in us which we call 'representation' to the object?" Unfortu-
nately, he divined for modern thought an ahistorical and fundamentally
inadequate answer, namely that we are simply not constituted so as to be
able to understand reality directly. Two centuries later (1981),
Emmanuel Levinas came much closer to the mark with "Philosophy, in its
very diachrony, is the consciousness of the breakup of consciousness."
Eli Sagan (1985) spoke for countless others in declaring that the
need to symbolize and live in a symbolic world is, like aggression, a human
need so basic that "it can be denied only at the cost of severe psychic
disorder." The need for symbols — and violence — did not always obtain,
however. Rather, they have their origins in the thwarting and
fragmenting of an earlier wholeness, in the process of domestication
from which civilization issued. Apparently driven forward by a gradually
quickening growth in the division of labor that began to take hold in the
Upper Paleolithic, culture emerged as time, language, art, number, and then
The word culture derives from the Latin cultura, referring to culti-
vation of the soil; that is, to the domestication of plants and animals —
and of ourselves in the bargain. A restless spirit of innovation and
4 Running On
anxiety has largely been with us ever since, as continually changing
symbolic modes seek to fix what cannot be redressed without rejecting
the symbolic and its estranged world.
Following Durkheim, Leslie White (1949) wrote, "Human behavior is
symbolic behavior; symbolic behavior is human behavior. The symbol is
the universe of humanity." It is past time to see such pronouncements as
ideology, serving to shore up the elemental falsification underneath a
virtually all-encompassing false consciousness. But if a fully developed
symbolic world is not, in Northrop Frye's bald claim (1981), in sum
"the charter of our freedom," anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1965) comes
closer to the truth in saying that we are generally dependent on "the
guidance provided by systems of significant symbols." Closer yet is Cohen
(1974), who observed that "symbols are essential for the development and
maintenance of social order." The ensemble of symbols represents the
social order and the individual's place in it, a formulation that always leaves
the genesis of this arrangement unquestioned. How did our behavior
come to be aligned by symbolization?
Culture arose and flourished via domination of nature, its growth a
measure of that progressive mastery that unfolded with ever greater
division of labor. Malinowski (1962) understood symbolism as the
soul of civilization, chiefly in the form of language as a means of coor-
dinating action or of standardizing technique, and providing rules for
social, ritual, and industrial behavior.
It is our fall from a simplicity and fullness of life directly experienced,
from the sensuous moment of knowing, which leaves a gap that the
symbolic can never bridge. This is what is always being covered over
by layers of cultural consolations, civilized detouring that never recovers lost
wholeness. In a very deep sense, only what is repressed is symbolized,
because only what is repressed needs to be symbolized. The magnitude
of symbolization testifies to how much has been repressed; buried, but
possibly still recoverable.
Imperceptibly for a long while, most likely, division of labor very
slowly advanced and eventually began to erode the autonomy of the
individual and a face-to-face mode of social existence. The virus des-
tined to become full-blown as civilization began in this way: a tentative
thesis supported by all that victimizes us now. From initial alienation to
advanced civilization, the course is marked by more and
The Failure of Symbolic Thought
more reification, dependence, bureaucratization, spiritual desolation,
and barren technicization.
Little wonder that the question of the origin of symbolic thought,
the very air of civilization, arises with some force. Why culture should
exist in the first place appears, increasingly, a more apt way to put it.
Especially given the enormous antiquity of human intelligence now
established, chiefly from Thomas Wynn's persuasive demonstration (1989)
of what it took to fashion the stone tools of about a million years ago.
There was a very evident gap between established human capability and
the initiation of symbolic culture, with many thousands of generations
intervening between the two.
Culture is a fairly recent affair. The oldest cave art, for example, is in
the neighborhood of 30,000 years old, and agriculture only got underway
about 10,000 years ago. The missing element during the vast interval
between the time when I.Q. was available to enable symbolizing, and its
realization, was a shift in our relationship to nature. It seems plausible to
see in this interval, on some level that we will perhaps never fathom, a
refusal to strive for mastery of nature. It may be that only when this
striving for mastery was introduced, probably non-consciously, via a very
gradual division of labor, did the symbolizing of experiences begin to take
But, it is so often argued, the violence of primitives — human sacri-
fice, cannibalism, head-hunting, slavery, etc. — can only be tamed by
symbolic culture/civilization. The simple answer to this stereotype of the
primitive is that organized violence was not ended by culture, but in fact
commenced with it. William J. Perry (1927) studied various New World
peoples and noted a striking contrast between an agricultural group
and a non-domesticated group. He found the latter "greatly
inferior in culture, but lacking [the formers] hideous customs."
While virtually every society that adopted a domesticated relationship to
nature, all over the globe, became subject to violent practices, the non-
agricultural knew no organized violence. Anthropologists have long
focused on the Northwest Coast Indians as a rare exception to this rule of
thumb. Although essentially a fishing people, at a certain point they took
slaves and established a very hierarchical society. Even here, however,
domestication was present, in the form of tame dogs and tobacco as a minor
D Running on Emptiness
We succumb to objectification and let a web of culture control us
and tell us how to live, as if this were a natural development. It is any-
thing but that, and we should be clear abou t what culture/civilization has
in fact given us, and what it has taken away.
The philosopher Richard Rorty (1979) described culture as the
assemblage of claims to knowledge. In the realm of symbolic being the
senses are depreciated, because of their systematic separation and atrophy
under civilization. The sensual is not considered a legitimate source of claims
We humans once allowed a full and appreciative reception to the
total sensory input, what is called in German umwelt, or the world
around us. Heinz Werner (1940, 1963) argued that originally a single
sense obtained, before divisions in society ruptured sensory unity. Sur-
viving non-agricultural peoples often exhibit, in the interplay and
mterpenetration of the senses, a very much greater sensory awareness
and involvement than do domesticated individuals (E. Carpenter
1980). Striking examples abound, such as the Bushmen, who can see
four moons of Jupiter with the unaided eye and can hear a single-
engine light plane seventy miles away (Farb 1978).
Symbolic culture inhibits human communication by blocking and
otherwise suppressing channels of sensory awareness. An increasingly
technological existence compels us to tune out most of what we could
experience. The William Blake declaration comes to mind:
If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to
man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, 'till he sees all
things through narrow chinks of his cavern.
Laurens van der Post (1958) described telepathic communication among
the Kung in Africa, prompting Richard Coan (1987) to characterize such
modes as "representing an alternative, rather than a prelude to the kind of
civilization in which we live."
In 1623 William Drummond wrote, "What sweet contentments
doth the soul enjoy by the senses. They are the gates and windows of
its knowledge, the organs of its delight." In fact, the "I," if not the
"soul," doesn't exist in the absence of bodily sensations; there are no non-
sensory conscious states.
The Failure of symbolic Thought
But it is all too evident how our senses have been domesticated in a
symbolic cultural atmosphere: tamed, separated, arranged in a revealing
hierarchy. Vision, under the sign of modern linear perspective, reigns
because it is the least proximal, most distancing of the senses. It has
been the means by which the individual has been transformed into a
spectator, the world into a spectacle, and the body an object or speci-
men. The primacy of the visual is no accident, for an undue elevation of
sight not only situates the viewer outside what he or she sees, but enables
the principle of control or domination at base. Sound or hearing as the
acme of the senses would be much less adequate to domestication because
it surrounds and penetrates the speaker as well as the listener.
Other sensual faculties are discounted far more. Smell, which loses
its importance only when suppressed by culture, was once a vital means of
connection with the world. The literature on cognition almost
completely ignores the sense of smell, just as its role is now so
circumscribed among humans. It is, after all, of little use for purposes of
domination; considering how smell can so directly trigger even very distant
memories, perhaps it is even a kind of anti-domination faculty. Lewis
Thomas (1983) remarked that "The act of smelling something, anything, is
remarkably like the act of thinking itself." And if it isn't it very likely
used to be and should be again.
Tactile experiences or practices are another sensual area we have been
expected to relinquish in favor of compensatory symbolic substitutes.
The sense of touch has indeed been diminished in a synthetic, work-
occupied, long-distance existence. There is little time for or emphasis on
tactile stimulation or communication, even though such depnval causes
clearly negative outcomes. Nuances of sensitivity and tenderness become
lost, and it is well known that infants and children who are seldom
touched, carried and caressed are slow to develop and are often
Touching by definition involves feeling; to be "touched" is to feel
emotionally moved, a reminder of the earlier potency of the tactile
sense, as in the expression "keep in touch." The lessening of this cate-
gory of sensuousness, among the rest, has had momentous consequences. Its
renewal, in a re-sensitized, reunited world, will bring a likewise momentous
improvement in living. As Tommy cried out, in
Running on Emptiness
The Who's rock opera of the same name, "See me, feel me, touch me,
heal me. . . ."
As with animals and plants, the land, the rivers, and human emo-
tions, the senses come to be isolated and subdued. Aristotle's notion of a
"proper" plan of the universe dictated that "each sense has its proper
sphere." Freud, Marcuse and others saw that civilization demands the
sublimation or repression of the pleasures of the proximity senses so that
the individual can be thus converted to an instrument of labor. Social
control, via the network of the symbolic, very deliberately disempowers
the body. An alienated counter-world, driven on to greater estrangement
by ever-greater division of labor, humbles one's own somatic sensations
and fundamentally distracts from the basic rhythms of one's life.
The definitive mmd-body split, ascribed to Descartes' 17th
century formulations, is the very hallmark of modern society. What
has been referred to as the great "Cartesian anxiety" over the specter of
intellectual and moral chaos, was resolved in favor of suppression of the
sensual and passionate dimension of human existence. Again we see
the domesticating urge underlying culture, the fear of not being in
control, now indicting the senses with a vengeance. Henceforth science
and technology have a theoretic license to proceed without limits, sensual
knowledge having been effectively eradicated in terms of claims to truth
Seeing what this bargain has wrought, a deep-seated reaction is
dawning against the vast symbolic enterprise that weighs us down and
invades every part of us. "If we do not 'come to our senses' soon," as
David Howes (1991) judged, "we will have permanently forfeited the
chance of constructing any meaningful alternatives to the pseudo-exis-
tence which passes for life in our current 'Civilization of the Image.'" The
task of critique may be, most centrally, to help us see what it will take to
reach a place in which we are truly present to each other and to the
The first separation seems to have been the sense of time which
brings a loss of being present to ourselves. The growth of this sense is
all but indistinguishable from that of alienation itself. If, as Levi-Strauss
put it, "the characteristic feature of the savage mind is its timelessness,"
living in the here and now becomes lost through the mediation of
cultural interventions. Presentness is deferred by the
The Failure of symbolic Thought
symbolic, and this refusal of the contingent instant is the birth of
time. We fall under the spell of what Eliade called the "terror of
history" as representations effectively oppose the pull of immediate
Mircea Eliade's Myth of the Eternal Return (1954) stresses the fear
that all primitive societies have had of history, the passing of time. On
the other hand, voices of civilization have tried to celebrate our immer-
sion in this most basic cultural construct. Leroi-Gourhan (1964), for
instance, saw in time orientation "perhaps the human act par excel-
lence." Our perceptions have become so time-governed and time satu-
rated that it is hard to imagine time's general absence: for the same
reasons it is so difficult to see, at this point, a non-alienated, non-sym-
bolic, undivided social existence.
History, according to Peterson and Goodall (1993), is marked by an
amnesia about where we came from. Their stimulating Visions of
Caliban also pointed out that our great forgetting may well have begun
with language, the originating device of the symbolic world. Compara-
tive linguist Mary LeCron Foster (1978, 1980) believes that language
is perhaps less than 50,000 years old and arose with the first impulses
toward art, ritual and social differentiation. Verbal symbolizing is the
principal means of establishing, defining, and maintaining the cultural
world and of structuring our very thinking.
As Hegel said somewhere, to question language is to question being.
It is very important, however, to resist such overstatements and see the
distinction, for one thing, between the cultural importance of language
and its inherent limitations. To hold that we and the world are but
linguistic creations is just another way of saying how pervasive and
controlling is symbolic culture. But Hegel's claim goes much too far,
and George Herbert Mead's assertion (1934) that to have a mind one
must have a language is similarly hyperbolic and false.
Language transforms meaning and communication but is not syn-
onymous with them. Thought, as Vendler (1967) understood, is essen-
tially independent of language. Studies of patients and others lacking all
aspects of speech and language demonstrate that the intellect remains
powerful even in the absence of those elements (Lecours and joanette
1980; Donald 1991). The claim that language greatly facilitates
thought is likewise questionable, inasmuch as formal experiments with
Running on Emptiness
children and adults have not demonstrated it (G. Cohen 1977). Lan-
guage is clearly not a necessary condition for thinking (see Kertesz 1 988,
Verbal communication is part of the movement away from a face-
to-face social reality, making feasible physical separateness. The word
always stands between people who wish to connect with each other,
facilitating the diminution of what need not be spoken to be said. That
we have declined from a non-lmguistic state begins to appear a sane
point of view. This intuition may lie behind George W Morgan's 1968
judgment that "Nothing, indeed, is more subject to depreciation and
suspicion in our disenchanted world than the word. "
Communication outside civilization involved all the senses, a con-
dition linked to the key gatherer-hunter traits of openness and sharing.
Literacy ushered us into the society of divided and reduced senses, and
we take this sensory deprivation for granted as if it were a natural state,
just as we take literacy for granted.
Culture and technology exist because of language. Many have seen
speech, in turn, as a means of coordinating labor, that is, as an essential
part of the technique of production. Language is critical for the formation of
the rules of work and exchange accompanying division of labor, with the
specializations and standardizations of nascent economy paralleling those
of language. Now guided by symbolization, a new kind of thinking takes
over, which realizes itself in culture and technology. The interdependence
of language and technology is at least as obvious as that of language and
culture, and results in an accelerating mastery over the natural world
intrinsically similar to the control introduced over the once autonomous and
Noam Chomsky, chief language theorist, commits a grave and
reactionary error by portraying language as a "natural" aspect of "essen-
tial human nature," innate and independent of culture (1966, 1992).
His Cartesian perspective sees the mind as an abstract machine which
is simply destined to turn out strings of symbols and manipulate them.
Concepts like origins or alienation have no place in this barren techno-
schema. Lieberman (1975) provides a concise and fundamental correc-
tion: "Human language could have evolved only in relation to the total
human condition. "
The original sense of the word define is, from Latin, to limit or
The Failure of symbolic Thought
bring to an end. Language seems often to close an experience,
not to help ourselves be open to experience. When we dream,
what happens is not expressed in words, just as those in love
communicate most deeply without verbal symbolizing. What
has been advanced by language that has really advanced the
human spirit? In 1976, von Glasersfeld wondered "whether, at
some future time, it will still seem so obvious that language has
enhanced the survival of life on this planet." Numerical symbolism
is also of fundamental importance to the development of a
cultural world. In many primitive societies it was and is
considered unlucky to count living creatures, an anti-reification
attitude related to the common primitive notion that to name
another is to gain power over that person. Counting, like naming,
is part of the domestication process. Division of labor lends
itself to the quantifiable, as opposed to what is whole in itself,
unique, not fragmented. Number is also necessary for the
abstraction inherent in the exchange of commodities and is
prerequisite to the take-off of science and technology. The urge
to measure involves a deformed kind of knowledge that seeks
control of its object, not understanding.
The sentiment that "the only way we truly apprehend things is
through art" is a commonplace opinion, one which underlines our
dependence on symbols and representation. "The fact that
originally all art was 'sacred'" (Eliade, 1985), that is, belonging
to a separate sphere, testifies to its original status or function.
Art is among the earliest forms of ideological and ritual
expressiveness, developed along with religious observances
designed to hold together a communal life that was beginning to
fragment. It was a key means of facilitating social integration and
economic differentiation (Dickson, 1990), probably by
encoding information to register membership, status, and
position (Lumsden and Wilson 1983). Prior to this time,
somewhere during the Upper Paleolithic, devices for social
cohesion were unnecessary; division of labor, separate roles, and
territoriality seem to have been largely non-existent. As
tensions and anxieties started to emerge in social life, art and
the rest of culture arose with them in answer to their disturbing
Running on Emptiness
tion that motivated the artistic search for a "fuller and deeper expression"
as "compensation for new deficiencies of life." Cultural solutions, however,
do not address the deeper dislocations that cultural "solutions" are
themselves part of. Conversely, as commentators as diverse as Henry Miller
and Theodor Adorno have concluded, there would be no need of art in a
disalienated world. What art has ineffectively striven to capture and express
would once again be a reality, the false antidote of culture forgotten.
Art is a language and so, evidently, is ritual, among the earliest cul-
tural and symbolic institutions. Julia Kristeva (1989) commented on "the
close relation of grammar to ritual," and Frits Staal's studies of Vedic
ritual (1982, 1986, 1988) demonstrated to him that syntax can completely
explain the form and meaning of ritual. As Chris Knight (1996) noted,
speech and ritual are "interdependent aspects of one and the same
symbolic domain. "
Essential for the breakthrough of the cultural in human affairs,
ritual is not only a means of aligning or prescribing emotions; it is also a
formalization that is intimately linked with hierarchies and formal
rule over individuals. All known tribal societies and early civilizations had
hierarchical organizations built on or bound up with a ritual structure
and matching conceptual system.
Examples of the link between ritual and inequality, developing
even prior to agriculture, are widespread (Gans 1985, Conkey 1984).
Rites serve a safety valve function for the discharge of tensions gener-
ated by emerging divisions in society and work to create and maintain
social cohesion. Earlier on there was no need of devices to unify what
was, in a non-division of labor context, still whole and unstratified.
It has often been said that the function of the symbol is to disclose
structures of the real that are inaccessible to empirical observation. More to
the point, in terms of the processes of culture and civilization, however, is
Abner Cohen's contention (1981, 1993) that symbolism and ritual
disguise, mystify and sanctify irksome duties and roles and thus make
them seem desirable. Or, as David Parkin (1992) put it, the compulsory
nature of ritual blunts the natural autonomy of individuals by placing
them at the service of authority.
Ostensibly opposed to estrangement, the counter-world of public
rites is arrayed against the current of historical direction. But, again,
The Failure of symbolic Thought
this is a delusion, since ritual facilitates the establishment of
the cultural order, bedrock of alienated theory and practice. Ritual
authority structures play an important part in the organization
of production (division of labor) and actively further the coming
of domestication. Symbolic categories are set up to control the
wild and alien; thus the domination of women proceeds, a
development brought to full realization with agriculture,
when women become essentially beasts of burden and/or
sexual objects. Part of this fundamental shift is movement
toward territorialism and warfare; Johnson and Earle (1987)
discussed the correspondence between this movement and the
increased importance of ceremonialism.
According to James Shreeve (1995), "In the ethnographic record,
wherever you get inequality, it is justified by invoking the sacred."
Relatedly, all symbolism, says Eliade (1985), was originally
religious symbolism. Social inequality seems to be accompanied
by subjugation in the non-human sphere. M. Reinach (quoted in
Radm, 1927) said, "thanks to magic, man takes the offensive
against the objective world." Cassirer (1955) phrased it this way:
"Nature yields nothing without ceremonies." Out of ritual action
arose the shaman, who was not only the first specialist because of
his or her role in this area, but the first cultural practitioner in
general. The earliest art was accomplished by shamans, as they
assumed ideological leadership and designed the content of
This original specialist became the regulator of group emotions,
and as the shaman's potency increased, there was a corresponding
decrease in the psychic vitality of the rest of the group
(Lommel, 1967). Centralized authority, and most likely
religion too, grew out of the elevated position of the shaman.
The specter of social complexity was incarnated in this
individual who wielded symbolic power. Every head man and
chief developed from the primacy of this figure in the lives of
others in the group.
Religion, like art, contributed to a common symbolic grammar
needed by the new social order and its fissures and anxieties.
The word is based on the Latin religare, to tie or bind, and a Greek
Running on Emptiness
and transcendence by means of the symbolic. Religion finds no basis for
its existence prior to the wrong turn taken toward culture and the
civilized (domesticated). The American philosopher George Santayana
summed it up well with, "Another world to live in is what we mean by
Since Darwin's Descent of Man (1871) we have understood that human
evolution greatly accelerated culturally at a time of insignificant
physiological change. Thus symbolic being did not depend on waiting
for the right gifts to evolve. We can now see, with Clive Gamble (1994),
that intention in human action did not arrive with domestica-
The native denizens of Africa's Kalahari Desert, as studied by Laurens
van der Post (1976), lived in "a state of complete trust, dependence and
interdependence with nature," which was "far kinder to them than any
civilization ever was." Egalitarianism and sharing were the hallmark
qualities of hunter-gatherer life (G. Isaac 1976, Ingold 1987, 1988,
Erdal and Whiten 1992, etc.), which is more accurately called gatherer-
hunter life, or the foraging mode. In fact, the great bulk of this diet
consisted of plant material, and there is no conclusive evidence for hunting
at all prior to the Upper Paleolithic (Binford 1984, 1985).
An instructive look at contemporary primitive societies is Colin
Turnbull's work (1961, 1965) on pygmies of the Ituri forest and their
Bantu neighbors. The pygmies are foragers, living with no religion or
culture. They are seen as immoral and ignorant by the agriculturalist
Bantu, but enjoy much greater individualism and freedom. To the
annoyance of the Bantu, the pygmies irreverently mock the solemn
rites of the latter and their sense of sin. Rejecting territorialism, much
less private holdings, they "move freely in an uncharted, unsystem-
atized, unbounded social world," according to Mary Douglas (1973).
The vast era prior to the coming of symbolic being is an enor-
mously prominent reality and a question mark to some. Commenting
on this "period spanning more than a million years," Tim Ingold
(1993) called it "one of the most profound enigmas known to archaeo-
logical science." But the longevity of this stable, non-cultural epoch
has a simple explanation: as E Goodman (1988) surmised, "It was
such a harmonious existence, and such a successful adaptation, that it
did not materially alter for many thousands of years."
The Failure of symbolic Thought
Culture triumphed at last with domestication. The scope of life became
narrower, more specialized, forcibly divorced from its previous grace and
spontaneous liberty. The assault of a symbolic orientation upon the
natural also had immediate outward results. Early rock drawings,
found 125 miles from the nearest recorded trickle of water in the
Sahara, show people swimming. Elephants were still somewhat common in
some coastal Mediterranean zones in 500 BC, wrote Herodotus. Historian
Clive Ponting (1992) has shown that every civilization has diminished
the health of its environment.
And cultivation definitely did not provide a higher-quality or more
reliable food base (M.N. Cohen 1989, Walker and Shipman 1996),
though it did introduce diseases of all kinds, almost completely unknown
outside civilization (Burkett 1978, Freund 1982), and sexual inequality (M.
Ehrenberg 1989, A. Getty 1996). Frank Waters' Book
of the Hopi (1963) gives us a stunning picture of unchecked division of
labor and the poverty of the symbolic: "More and more they traded for
things they didn't need, and the more goods they got, the more they
wanted. This was very serious. For they did not realize they were drawing
away, step by step, from the good life given them."
A pertinent chapter from The Time Before History (1996) by
Colin Tudge bears a title that speaks volumes, "The End of Eden: Farming."
Much of an underlying epistemological distinction is revealed in this
contrast by Ingold (1993): "In short, whereas for farmers and
herdsmen the tool is an instrument of control, for hunters and
gatherers it would better be regarded as an instrument of revelation." And
Horkheimer (1972) bears quoting, in terms of the psychic cost of
domestication/domination of nature: "the destruction of the inner life
is the penalty man has to pay for having no respect for any life other
than his own." Violence directed outward is at the same time inflicted
spiritually, and the outside world becomes transformed, debased, as
surely as the perceptual field was subjected to fundamental redefinition.
Nature certainly did not ordain civilization; quite the contrary.
Today it is fashionable, if not mandatory, to maintain that culture
always was and always will be. Even though it is demonstrably the case
that there was an extremely long non-symbolic human era, perhaps one
hundred times as long as that of civilization, and that culture has
Running On Emptiness
gained only at the expense of nature, one has it from all sides that the
symbolic — like alienation — is eternal. Thus questions of origins and
destinations are meaningless. Nothing can be traced further than the
semiotic in which everything is trapped.
But the limits of the dominant rationality and the costs of civiliza-
tion are too starkly visible for us to accept this kind of cop-out. Since
the ascendance of the symbolic humans have been trying, through par-
ticipation in culture, to recover an authenticity we once lived. The constant
urge or quest for the transcendent testifies that the hegemony of
absence is a cultural constant. As Thomas McFarland (1987) found, "culture
primarily witnesses the absence of meaning, not its presence."
Massive, unfulfilling consumption, within the dictates of produc-
tion and social control, reigns as the chief everyday consolation for this
absence of meaning, and culture is certainly itself a prime consumer choice.
At base, it is division of labor that ordains our false and disabling
symbolic totality. "The increase in specialization ..." wrote Peter Lomas
(1996), "undermines our confidence in our ordinary capacity to live."
We are caught in the cultural logic of objectification and the
objectifying logic of culture, such that those who counsel new ritual
and other representational forms as the route to a re-enchanted exis-
tence miss the point completely. More of what has failed for so long
can hardly be the answer. Levi-Strauss (1978) referred to "a kind of
wisdom [that primitive peoples] practiced spontaneously and the rejec-
tion of which, by the modern world, is the real madness."
Either the non-symbolizing health that once obtained, in all its
dimensions, or madness and death. Culture has led us to betray our
own aboriginal spirit and wholeness, into an ever-worsening realm of
synthetic, isolating, impoverished estrangement. Which is not to say
that there are no more everyday pleasures, without which we would
lose our humanness. But as our plight deepens, we glimpse how much
must be erased for our redemption.
TIME AND ITS DISCONTENTS
The dimension of time seems to be attracting great notice, to judge
from the number of recent movies that focus on it, such as Back to the
Future, Terminator, Peggy Sue Got Married, etc. Stephen Hawkmg's A
Brief History of Time (1988) was a best-seller and became, even more
surprisingly, a popular film. Remarkable, in addition to the number of
books that deal with time, are the larger number which don't, really, but
which feature the word in their titles nonetheless, such as Virginia
Spate's The Color of Time: Claude Monet (1992). Such references have
to do, albeit indirectly, with the sudden, panicky awareness of time, the
frightening sense of our being tied to it. Time is increasingly a key
manifestation of the estrangement and humiliation that characterize
modern existence. It illuminates the entire, deformed landscape and
will do so ever more harshly until this landscape and all the forces that
shape it are changed beyond recognizing.
This contribution to the subject has little to do with time's fasci-
nation for film-makers or TV producers, or with the current academic
interest in geologic conceptions of time, the history of clock technol-
ogy and the sociology of time, or with personal observations and coun-
sels on its use. Neither aspects nor excesses of time deserve as much
attention as time's inner meaning and logic. For despite the fact that
time's perplexing character has become, in John Michon's estimation,
18 Running on Emptiness
"almost an intellectual obsession" (1988), society is plainly incapable of
dealing with it.
With time we confront a philosophical enigma, a psychological
mystery, and a puzzle of logic. Not surprisingly, considering the massive
reification involved, some have doubted its existence since humanity began
distinguishing "time itself from visible and tangible changes in the world.
As Michael Ende (1984) put it: "There is in the world a great and yet
ordinary secret. A n of us are part of it, everyone is aware of it, but very
few ever think of it. Most of us just accept it and never wonder over it.
This secret is time."
Just what is "time"? Spengler declared that no one should be allowed
to ask. The physicist Richard Feynman (1988) answered, "Don't even
ask me. It's just too hard to think about." Empirically as much as in theory,
the laboratory is powerless to reveal the flow of time, since no instrument
exists that can register its passage. But why do we have such a strong sense
that time does pass, ineluctably and in one particular direction, if it really
doesn't? Why does this "illusion" have such a hold over us? We might just
as well ask why alienation has such a hold over us. The passage of time is
intimately familiar, the concept of time mockingly elusive; why should this
appear bizarre, in a world whose survival depends on the mystification of its
most basic categories?
We have gone along with the substantiation of time so that it
seems a fact of nature, a power existing in its own right. The growth of a
sense of time — the acceptance of time — is a process of adaptation to an
ever more reified world. It is a constructed dimension, the most ele-
mental aspect of culture. Time's inexorable nature provides the ultimate
model of domination.
The further we go in time the worse it gets. We inhabit an age of
the disintegration of experience, according to Adorno. The pressure of
time, like that of its essential progenitor, division of labor, fragments
and disperses all before it. Uniformity, equivalence, separation are
byproducts of time's harsh force. The intrinsic beauty and meaning of
that fragment of the world that is not-yet-culture moves steadily toward
annihilation under a single cultures-wide clock. Paul Ricoeur's assertion
that "we are not capable of producing a concept of time that is at once
cosmological, biological, historical and individual," fails to notice how they
Time and Its Discontents
Concerning this "fiction" that upholds and accompanies all the forms
of imprisonment, "the world is filled with propaganda alleging its
existence," as Bernard Aaronson (1972) put it so well. "All awareness,"
wrote the poet Denise Levertov (1974), "is an awareness of time,"
showing just how deeply alienated we are in time. We have become
regimented under its empire, as time and alienation continue to
deepen their intrusion, their debasement of everyday life. "Does this
mean," as David Carr (1986) asks, "that the 'struggle' of existence is to
overcome time itself?" It may be that exactly this is the last enemy to
In coming to grips with this ubiquitous yet phantom adversary, it
is somewhat easier to say what time is not. It is not synonymous, for
fairly obvious reasons, with change. Nor is it sequence, or order of suc-
cession. Pavlov's dog, for instance, must have learned that the sound of
the bell was followed by feeding; how else could it have been condi-
tioned to salivate at that sound? But dogs do not possess time consciousness,
so before and after cannot be said to constitute time.
Somewhat related are inadequate attempts to account for our all but
inescapable sense of time. The neurologist Gooddy (1988), rather along
the lines of Kant, describes it as one of our "subconscious assumptions
about the world." Some have described it, no more helpfully, as a
product of the imagination, and the philosopher J.J.C. Smart (1980)
decided that it is a feeling that "arises out of metaphysical confusion."
McTaggart (1934), F.H. Bradley (1930), and Dummett (1978) have been
among 20th century thinkers who have decided against the existence of
time because of its logically contradictory features, but it seems fairly
plain that the presence of time has far deeper causes than mere mental
There is nothing even remotely similar to time. It is as unnatural
and yet as universal as alienation. Chacalos (1989) points out that the
present is a notion just as puzzling and intractable as time itself. What is
the present? We know that it is always now; one is confined to it, in an
important sense, and can experience no other "part" of time. We speak
confidently of other parts, however, which we call "past" and "future." But
whereas things that exist in space elsewhere than here continue to exist,
things that don't exist now, as Sklar (1992) observes, don't really exist at
Running on Emptiness
Time necessarily flows; without its passage there would be no sense
of time. Whatever flows, though, flows with respect to time. Time
therefore flows with respect to itself, which is meaningless owing to the
fact that nothing can flow with respect to itself No vocabulary is
available for the abstract explication of time apart from a vocabulary in
which time is already presupposed. What is necessary is to put all the
givens into question. Metaphysics, with a narrowness that division of
labor has imposed from its inception, is too narrow for such a task.
What causes time to flow, what is it that moves it toward the future?
Whatever it is, it must be beyond our time, deeper and more powerful. It
must depend as Conly (1975) had it, "upon elemental forces which are
continually in operation. "
William Spanos (1987) has noted that certain Latin words for
culture not only signify agriculture or domestication, but are transla-
tions from Greek terms for the spatial image of time. We are, at base,
"time-binders," in Alfred Korzybski's lexicon (1948); the species, due to
this characteristic, creates a symbolic class of life, an artificial world.
Time-binding reveals itself in an "enormous increase in the control
over nature." Time becomes real because it has consequences, and this
efficacy has never been more painfully apparent.
Life, in its barest outline, is said to be a journey through time; that it
is a journey through alienation is the most public of secrets. "No clock
strikes for the happy one," says a German proverb. Passing time, once
meaningless, is now the inescapable beat, restricting and coercing us,
mirroring blind authority itself. Guyau (1890) determined the flow of
time to be "the distinction between what one needs and what one has,"
and therefore "the incipience of regret." Carpe diem, the maxim counsels,
but civilization forces us always to mortgage the present to the future.
Time aims continually toward greater strictness of regularity and
universality. Capital's technological world charts its progress by this, could
not exist in its absence. "The importance of time," wrote Bertrand Russell
(1929), lies "rather in relation to our desires than in relation to truth."
There is a longing that is as palpable as time has become. The denial of
desire can be gauged no more definitively than via the vast construct we
Time, like technology, is never neutral; it is, as Castoriadis (1991)
Time and Its Discontents
rightly judged, "always endowed with meaning." Everything that com-
mentators like Ellul (1964) have said about technology, in fact, applies to
time, and more deeply. Both conditions are pervasive, omnipresent,
basic, and in general as taken for granted as alienation itself. Time, like
technology, is not only a determining fact but also the enveloping
element in which divided society develops. Similarly, it demands that
its subjects be painstaking, "realistic," serious, and above all, devoted to
work. It is autonomous in its overall aspect, like technology; it goes on
forever of its own accord.
But like division of labor, which stands behind and sets in motion
time and technology, it is, after all, a socially learned phenomenon. Humans,
and the rest of the world, are synchronized to time and its technical
embodiment, rather than the reverse. Central to this dimension — as it is
to alienation per se — is the feeling of being a helpless spectator. Every rebel,
it follows, also rebels against time and its relentlessness. Redemption must
involve, in a very fundamental sense, redemption from time.
"Time is the accident of accidents," according to Epicurus. Upon
closer examination, however, its genesis appears less mysterious. It has
occurred to many, in fact, that notions such as "the past," "the
present," and "the future" are more linguistic than actual or physical. The
neo-Freudian theorist Lacan, for example, decided that the time experience is
essentially an effect of language. A person with no language would likely
have no sense of the passage of time. RA. Wilson (1980), moving much
closer to the point, suggested that language was initiated by the need to
express symbolic time. Gosseth (1972) argued that the system of tenses
found in Indo-European languages developed along with consciousness
of a universal or abstract time. Time and language are coterminous,
decided Derrida (1982): "to be in the one is to be in the other." Time is
a symbolic construct immediately prior, relatively speaking, to all the
others and which requires language for its actualization.
Paul Valery (1962) referred to the fall of the species into time as sig-
nalling alienation from nature; "by a sort of abuse, man creates time," he
wrote. In the timeless epoch before this fall, which constituted the over-
whelming majority of our existence as humans, life, as has often been
said, had a rhythm but not a progression. It was the state when the soul
could "gather in the whole of its being," in Rousseau's words, in the
absence of temporal strictures, "where time is nothing to the soul." Activ-
ities themselves, usually of a leisurely character, were the points of refer-
ence before time and civilization; nature provided the necessary signals,
quite independent of "time." Humanity must have been conscious of
memories and purposes long before any explicit distinctions were drawn
among past, present, and future (Fraser, 1990). Furthermore, as the linguist
Whorf (1956) estimated, "preliterate [primitive 1 ] communities, far from
being subrational, may show the human mind functioning on a higher and
more complex plane of rationality than among civilized men."
The largely hidden key to the symbolic world is time; indeed it is at
the origin of human symbolic activity. Time thus occasions the first
alienation, the route away from aboriginal richness and wholeness. "Out
of the simultaneity of experience, the event of Language," says Charles
Simic (1971) "is an emergence into linear time." Researchers such as
Zohar (1982) consider faculties of telepathy and precognition to have
been sacrificed for the sake of evolution into symbolic life. If this
sounds far-fetched, the sober positivist Freud (1932) viewed telepathy as
quite possibly "the original archaic means through which individuals
understand one another." If the perception and apperception of time
relate to the very essence of cultural life (Gurevich 1976), the advent of
this time sense and its concomitant culture represent an impoverishment,
even a disfigurement, by time.
The consequences of this intrusion of time, via language, indicate
that the latter is no more innocent, neutral, or assumption-free than the
former. Time is not only, as Kant said, at the foundation of all our
representations, but, by this fact, also at the foundation of our adapta-
tion to a qualitatively reduced, symbolic world. Our experience in this
world is under an all-pervasive pressure to be representation, to be almost
unconsciously degraded into symbols and measurements. "Time," wrote
the German mystic Meister Eckhart, "is what keeps the light from
Time awareness is what empowers us to deal with our environment
symbolically; there is no time apart from this estrangement. It is by
means of progressive symbolization that time becomes naturalized,
becomes a given, is removed from the sphere of conscious cultural pro-
Time and Its Discontents
actualized in narrative," is another way of putting it (Ricoeur 1984). The
symbolic accretions in this process constitute a steady throttling of
instinctive desire; repression develops the sense of time unfolding.
Immediacy gives way, replaced by the mediations that make history
possible — language in the forefront.
One begins to see past such banalities as "time is an incomprehen-
sible quality of the given world" (Sebba 1991). Number, art, religion
make their appearances in this "given" world, disembodied phenomena
of reified life. These emerging rites, in turn, Gurevitch (1964) sur-
mises, lead to "the production of new symbolic contents, thus encour-
aging time leaping forward." Symbols, including time, of course, now
have lives of their own, in this cumulative, interacting progression. David
Brame's The Reality of Time and the Existence of God (1988) is
illustrative. It argues that it is precisely time's reality which proves the
existence of God; civilization's perfect logic.
All ritual is an attempt, through symbolism, to return to the time-
less state. Ritual is a gesture of abstraction from that state, however, a
false step that only leads further away. The "timelessness" of number is
part of this trajectory, and contributes much to time as a fixed
concept. In fact, Blumenberg (1983) seems largely correct in assaying
that "time is not measured as something that has been present all
along; instead it is produced, for the first time, by measurement." To
express time we must, in some way, quantify it; number is therefore
essential. Even where time has already appeared, a slowly more divided
social existence works toward its progressive reification only by means of
number. The sense of passing time is not keen among tribal peoples, for
example, who do not mark it with calendars or clocks.
Time: an original meaning of the word in ancient Greek is division.
Number, when added to time, makes the dividing or separating that
much more potent. The non-civilized often have considered it "unlucky" to
count living creatures, and generally resist adopting the practice (e.g.
Dobrizhoffer 1822). The intuition for number was far from spontaneous
and inevitable, but "already in early civilizations," Schimmel (1992)
reports, "one feels that numbers are a reality having as it were a
magnetic power field around them." It is not surprising that among
ancient cultures with the strongest emerging senses of time — Egyptian,
Babylonian, Mayan — we see numbers associated with
Running on Emptiness
ritual figures and deities; indeed the Mayans and Babylonians both had
number gods (Barrow 1992).
Much later the clock, with its face of numbers, encouraged society
to abstract and quantify the experience of time still further. Every
clock reading is a measurement that joins the clock watcher to the "flow
of time." And we absently delude ourselves that we know what time is
because we know what time it is. If we did away with clocks, Shallis (1982)
reminds us, objective time would also disappear. More fundamentally, if we
did away with specialization and technology, alienation would be banished.
The mathematizing of nature was the basis for the birth of modern
rationalism and science in the West. This had stemmed from demands for
number and measurement in connection with similar teachings about time,
in the service of mercantile capitalism. The continuity of number and
time as a geometrical locus were fundamental to the Scientific
Revolution, which projected Galileo's dictum to measure all that is
measurable and make measurable that which is not. Mathematically
divisible time is necessary for the conquest of nature, and for even the
rudiments of modern technology.
From this point on, number-based symbolic time became crush-
ingly real, an abstract construction "removed from and even contrary to
every internal and external human experience" (Syzamosi 1986). Under its
pressure, money and language, merchandise and information have
become steadily less distinguishable, and division of labor more extreme.
To symbolize is to express time consciousness, for the symbol
embodies the structure of time (Darby 1982). Clearer still is Meerloo's
formulation: "To understand a symbol and its development is to grasp
human history in a nutshell." The contrast is the life of the non-civilized,
lived in a capacious present that cannot be reduced to the single moment
of the mathematical present. As the continual now gave way to increasing
reliance upon systems of significant symbols (language, number, art,
ritual, myth) dislodged from the now, the further abstraction, history, began
to develop. Historical time is no more inherent in reality, no less an
imposition on it, than the earlier, less Choate forms of time.
In a slowly more synthetic context, astronomical observation is
invested with new meanings. Once pursued for its own sake, it comes
Time and Its Discontents
to provide the vehicle for scheduling rituals and coordinating the activ-
ities of complex society. With the help of the stars, the year and its divisions
exist as instruments of organizational authority (Leach 1954). The
formation of a calendar is basic to the formation of a civilization. The
calendar was the first symbolic artifact that regulated social behavior by
keeping track of time. And what is involved is not the control of time
but its opposite: enclosure by time in a world of very real alienation.
One recalls that our word comes from the Latin calends, the first day of
the month, when business accounts had to be settled.
"No time is entirely present," said the Stoic Chrysippus, and meanwhile
the concept of time was being further advanced by the underlying .Tudeo-
Christian tenet of a linear, irreversible path between creation and salvation.
This essentially historical view of time is the very core of Christianity;
all the basic notions of measurable, one-way time can be found in St.
Augustine's (fifth-century) writings. With the spread of the new
religion the strict regulation of time, on a practical plane, was needed
to help maintain the discipline of monastic life. Bells summoning the
monks to prayer eight times daily were heard far beyond the confines of
the cloister, and thus a measure of time regulation was imposed on
society at large. The population continued to exhibit "une vaste
indifference au temps" throughout the feudal era, according to Marc Bloch
(1940), but it is no accident that the first public clocks adorned
cathedrals in the West. Worth noting in this regard is the fact that the
calling of precise prayer times became the chief externalization of
medieval Islamic belief.
The invention of the mechanical clock was one of the most impor-
tant turning points in the history of science and technology; indeed of
all human art and culture (Synge 1959). The improvement in accuracy
presented authority with enhanced opportunities for oppression. An
early devotee of elaborate mechanical clocks, for example, was Duke Gian
Galeazzo Visconti, described in 1381 as "a sedate but crafty ruler with a
great love of order and precision" (Fraser 1988). As Weizenbaum (1976)
wrote, the clock began to create "literally a new reality ... that was and
remains an impoverished version of the old one."
A qualitative change was introduced. Even when nothing was hap-
pening, time did not cease to flow. Events, from this era on, are put into
this homogeneous, objectively measured, moving envelope — and
Running on Emptiness
this unilinear progression incited resistance. The most extreme were the
chiliast, or millenarian, movements, which appeared in various parts of
Europe from the 14th into the 17th centuries. These generally took the
form of peasant risings which aimed at recreating the primal egalitarian
state of nature and were explicitly opposed to historical time. These
Utopian explosions were quelled, but remnants of earlier time concepts
persisted as a "lower" stratum of folk consciousness in many areas.
During the Renaissance, domination by time reached a new level as
public clocks now tolled all twenty -four hours of the day and added
new hands to mark the passing seconds. A keen sense of time's all-con-
suming presence is the great discovery of the age, and nothing portrays
this more graphically than the figure of Father Time. Renaissance art
fused the Greek god Kronos with the Roman god Saturn to form the
familiar grim deity representing the power of Time, armed with a fatal
scythe signifying his association with agriculture/domestication. The Dance
of Death and other medieval memento mori artifacts preceded Father
Time, but the subject is now time rather than death.
The seventeenth century was the first in which people thought of
themselves as inhabiting a particular century. One now needed to take
one's bearings within time. Francis Bacon's The Masculine Birth of
Time (1603) and A Discourse Concerning a New Planet (1605) embraced
the deepening dimension and revealed how a heightened sense of time
could serve the new scientific spirit. "To choose time is to save
time," he wrote, and "Truth is the daughter of time." Descartes
followed, introducing the idea of time as limitless. He was one of the
first advocates of the modern idea of progress, closely related to that of
unbounded linear time, and characteristically expressing itself in his famous
invitation that we become "masters and possessors of nature."
Newton's clockwork universe was the crowning achievement of the
Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century, and was grounded in
his conception of "Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself and
from its own nature, flowing equably without relation to anything eternal."
Time is now the grand ruler, answering to no one, influenced by
nothing, completely independent of the environment: the model of
unassailable authority and perfect guarantor of unchanging alienation.
Time and Its Discontents
Classical Newtonian physics in fact remains, despite changes in
science, the dominant, everyday conception of time.
The appearance of independent, abstract time found its parallel in
the emergence of a growing, formally free working class forced to sell
its labor power as an abstract commodity on the market. Prior to the
coming of the factory system but already subject to time's disciplinary
power, this labor force was the inverse of the monarch Time: free and
independent in name only. In Foucault's judgment (1973), the West
had become a "carceral society' from this point on. Perhaps more
directly to the point is the Balkan proverb, "A clock is a lock."
In 1749 Rousseau threw away his watch, a symbolic rejection of
modern science and civilization. Somewhat more in the dominant spirit
of the age, however, were the gifts of 5 1 watches to Marie Antoinette upon
her engagement. The word is certainly appropriate, as people had to
"watch" the time more and more; watches would soon become one of
the first consumer durables of the industrial era.
William Blake and Goethe both attacked Newton, the symbol of
the new time and science, for his distancing of life from the sensual,
his reduction of the natural to the measurable. Capitalist ideologue
Adam Smith, on the other hand, echoed and extended Newton, by
calling for greater rationalization and routinization. Smith, like Newton,
labored under the spell of an increasingly powerful and remorseless time
in promoting further division of labor as objective and absolute
The Puritans had proclaimed waste of time the first and in princi-
ple the deadliest of sins (Weber 1921); this became, about a century
later, Ben Franklin's "Time is money." The factory system was initiated
by clockmakers and the clock was the symbol and fountainhead of the
order, discipline and repression required to create an industrial prole-
Hegel's grand system in the early 19th century heralded the "push
into time" that is History's momentum; time is our "destiny and neces-
sity," he declared. Postone (1993) noted that the "progress" of abstract
time is closely tied to the "progress" of capitalism as a way of life. Waves
of industrialism drowned the resistance of the Luddites; appraising this
general period, Lyotard (1988) decided that "the illness of time was now
Running On Emptiness
An increasingly complex class society requires an ever larger array of
time signals. Fights against time, as Thompson (1967) and Hohn
(1984) have pointed out, gave way to struggles over time; resistance to
being yoked to time and its inherent demands was defeated in general,
replaced, typically, by disputes over the fair determination of time schedules
or the length of the work day. [In an address to the First International (July
28, 1868), Karl Marx advocated, by the way, age nine as the time to
The clock descended from the cathedral, to court and courthouse,
next to the bank and railway station, and finally to the wrist and pocket
of each decent citizen. Time had to become more "democratic" in order
to truly colonize subjectivity. The subjection of outer nature, as Adorno
and others have understood, is successful only in the measure of the
conquest of inner nature. The unleashing of the forces of production, to
put it another way, depended on time's victory in its long-waged war on
freer consciousness. Industrialism brought with it a more complete
commodification of time, time in its most predatory form yet. It was
this that Giddens (1981) saw as "the key to the deepest
transformations of day-to-day social life that are brought about by the
emergence of capitalism."
"Time marches on," as the saying goes, in a world increasingly
dependent on time and a time increasingly unified. A single giant
clock hangs over the world and dominates. It pervades all; in its court
there is no appeal. The standardization of world time marks a victory
for the efficient/machine society, a universalism that undoes particular-
ity as surely as computers lead to homogemzation of thought.
Paul Virilio (1986) has gone so far as to foresee that "the loss of material
space leads to the government of nothing but time." A further provocative
notion posits a reversal of the birth of history out of maturing time. Virilio
(1991), in fact, finds us already living within a system of technological
temporality where history has been eclipsed. "... the primary
question becomes less one of relations to history than one of relations
to time. "
Such theoretical flights aside, however, there is ample evidence and
testimony as to time's central role in society. In "Time — The Next
Source of Competitive Advantage" (July-August, 1988 Harvard Busi-
ness Review), George Stark, Jr. discusses it as pivotal in the positioning
Time and Its Discontents
of capital: "Asa strategic weapon, time is the equivalent of money, pro-
ductivity, quality, even innovation." Time management is certainly not
confined to the corporations; Tevine's 1985 study of publicly accessible
clocks in six countries demonstrated that their accuracy was an exact
gauge of the relative industrialization of national life. Paul Adler's January-
February, 1993 Harvard Business Review offering, "Time-andMotion
Regained," nakedly champions the neo-Taylorist standardization and
regimentation of work: behind the well-publicized "workplace democracy"
window dressing in some factories remains the "time-andmotion discipline
and formal bureaucratic structures essential for efficiency and quality in
routine operations. "
It is clear that the advent of writing facilitated the fixation of time
concepts and the beginning of history. But as the anthropologist Goody
(1986) points out, "oral cultures are often only too prepared to accept
these innovations." They have already been conditioned, after all, by
language itself. McLuhan (1962) discussed how the coming of the
printed book, and mass literacy, reinforced the logic of linear time.
Fife was steadily forced to adapt. "For now hash time made me his
numbering clock," wrote Shakespeare in Richard H. "Time," like
"rich," was one of the favorite words of the Bard, a time -haunted figure. A
hundred years later, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe reflected how little escape
from time seemed possible. Marooned on a desert island, Crusoe is deeply
concerned with the passage of time; keeping close track of his affairs,
even in such a setting, meant above all keeping track of the time,
especially as long as his pen and ink lasted.
Northrop Frye (1950) saw the "alliance of time and Western man" as
the defining characteristic of the novel. Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (19
57) likewise focused on the new concern with time that stimulated the
novel's emergence in the eighteenth century. As Jonathan Swift told it
in Gulliver's Travels (1726), his protagonist never did anything without
looking at his watch. "He called it his oracle, and said it pointed out
the time for every action of his life." The Tilliputians concluded that the
watch was Gulliver's god. Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1760), on the eve of
the Industrial Revolution, begins with the mother of Tristram interrupting
his father at the moment of their monthly coitus: '"Pray, my dear, 1 quoth
my mother, 'have you not forgot to wind up the clock?'"
Running On Emptiness
In the nineteenth century Poe satirized the authority of clocks, linking
them to bourgeois superficiality and obsession with order. Time is the
real subject of Flaubert's novels, according to Hauser (1956), as
Walter Pater (1901) sought in literature the "wholly concrete moment"
which would "absorb past and future in an intense consciousness of the
present," similar to Joyce's celebration of "epiphanies." InMarius the
Epicurean (1909), Pater depicts Marius suddenly realizing "the possibility
of a real world beyond time." Meanwhile Swinburne looked for a respite
beyond "time-stricken lands" and Baudelaire declared his fear and hatred of
chronological time, the devouring foe.
The disorientation of an age wracked by time and subject to the
acceleration of history has led modern writers to deal with time from
new and extreme points of view. Proust delineated interrelationships among
events that transcended conventional temporal order and thus violated
Newtonian conceptions of causation. His thirteen-volume -a la Recherche
du Temps Perdu (1925), usually rendered in English as Remembrance of
Things Past, is more literally and accurately translated as Searching for
Lost Time. In it he judges that "a minute freed from the order of time
has recreated in us ... the individual freed from the order of time," and
recognizes "the only environment in which one could live and enjoy the
essence of things, that is to say, entirely outside time."
Philosophy in the twentieth century has been largely preoccupied
with time. Consider the misguided attempts to locate authentic time
by thinkers as different as Bergson and Heidegger, or the latter's virtual
deification of time. A. A. Mendilow's Time and the Novel (1952) reveals
how the same intense interest has dominated the novels of the century,
in particular those of Joyce, Woolf, Conrad, James, Gide, Mann, and
of course, Proust. Other studies, such as Church's Time and Reality
(1962), have expanded this list of novelists to include, among others,
Kafka, Sartre, Faulkner, and Vonnegut.
And of course time-struck literature cannot be confined to the
novel. T.S. Eliot's poetry often expressed a yearning to escape time -bound,
time-ridden conventionality. "Burnt Norton" (1941) is a good example,
with these lines:
Time past and time future
Time and Its Discontents
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time.
Samuel Beckett, early in his career (1931), wrote pointedly of "the
poisonous ingenuity of Time in the science of affliction." The play Waiting
for Godot (1955) is an obvious candidate in this regard, and so is his
Murphy (1957), in which time becomes reversible in the mind of the
main character. When the clock may go either way, our sense of time,
and time itself, vanishes.
Turning to what is commonly called psychology, we again come upon
one of the most fundamental questions: Is there really a phenomenon of
time that exists apart from any individual, or does it reside only in
one's perceptions of it? Husserl, for example, failed to show why
consciousness in the modern world seems to inevitably constitute itself
in time. We know that experiences, like events of every other kind, are
neither past, present nor future in themselves.
Whereas there was little sociological interest in time until the
1970s, the number of studies of time in the literature of psychology
has increased rapidly since 1930 (Lauer 1988). Time is perhaps hardest
of all to define "psychologically." What is time? What is the experience of
time? What is alienation? What is the experience of alienation? If the
latter subject were not so neglected the obvious interrelationship would
be made clear.
Davies (1977) termed time's passage "a psychological phenomenon
of mysterious origin" and concluded (1983), "the secret of mind will
only be solved when we understand the secret of time." Given the arti-
ficial separation of the individual from society, which defines their field, it is
inevitable that such psychologists and psychoanalysts as Eissler (1955),
Loewald (1962), Namnum (1972), and Morris (1983) have encountered
"great difficulties" in studying time!
At least a few partial insights have been achieved, however. Hart-
collis (1983), for instance, noted that time is not only an abstraction but a
feeling, while Korzybski (1948) had already taken this further with his
observation that "'time' is a feeling, produced by conditions of this
world...." In all our lives we are "waiting for Godot," according to
Arlow (1986), who believed that our experience of time arises out of
unfulfilled emotional needs. Similarly, Reichenbach (1956) had
Running On Emptiness
termed anti-time philosophies, like religion, "documents of emotional
dissatisfaction." In Freudian terms, Bergler and Roheim (1946) saw
the passage of time as symbolizing separation periods originating in
early infancy. "The calendar is an ultimate materialization of separation
anxiety." If informed by a critical interest in the social and historical
context, the implications of these undeveloped points could
become serious contributions. Confined to psychology, however, they
remain limited and even misleading.
I n the world of alienation no adult can contrive or decree the freedom
from time that the child habitually enjoys — and must be made to lose.
Time training, the essence of schooling, is vitally important to society.
This training, as Fraser (1989) very cogently puts it, "bears in almost
paradigmatic form the features of a civilizing process." A patient of Joost
Meerlo (1970) "expressed it sarcastically: 'Time is civilization, 1 by which
she meant that scheduling and meticulousness were the great weapons
used by adults to force the youngsters into submission and servility."
Piaget's studies (1946, 1952) could detect no innate sense of time.
Rather, the abstract notion of "time" is of considerable difficulty to the
young. It is not something they learn automatically; there is no
spontaneous orientation toward time (Hermelin and O'Connor 1971, Voyat
Time and tidy are related etymologically, and our Newtonian idea of
time represents perfect and universal ordering. The cumulative weight of
this ever more pervasive pressure shows up in the increasing number of
patients with time anxiety symptoms (Lawson 1990). Dooley (1941)
referred to "the observed fact that people who are obsessive in character,
whatever their type of neurosis, are those who make most extensive use of
the sense of time...." Pettit's "Anality and Time" (1969) argued
convincingly for the close connection between the two, as Meerloo
(1966), citing the character and achievements of Mussolini and Eichmann,
found " a definite connection between time compulsion and f ascistic
Capek (1961) called time "a huge and chronic hallucination of the
human mmd"; there are few experiences indeed that can be said to be
timeless. Orgasm, LSD, a life "flashing before one's eyes" in a moment
of extreme danger ... these are some of the rare, evanescent situations
intense enough to escape from time's insistence.
Time and Its Discontents
Timelessness is the ideal of pleasure, wrote Marcuse (1955). The
passage of time, on the other hand, fosters the forgetting of what was
and what can be. It is the enemy of erns and deep ally of the order of
repression. The mental processes of the unconscious are in fact time-
less, decided Freud (1920): "... time does not change them in any
way and the idea of time cannot be applied to them." Thus desire is
already outside of time. As Freud said in 1932: "There is nothing in
the Id that corresponds to the notion of time; there is no recognition
of the passage of time."
Marie Bonaparte (1940) argued that time becomes ever more
plastic and obedient to the pleasure principle insofar as we loosen the
bonds of full ego control. Dreams are a form of thinking among non-
civilized peoples (Kracke 1987); this faculty must have once been much
more accessible to us. The Surrealists believed that reality could be
much more fully understood if we could make the connection to our
instinctive, subconscious experiences; Breton (1924), for example,
proclaimed the radical goal of a resolution of dream and conscious reality.
When we dream the sense of time is virtually nonexistent, replaced
by a sensation of presentness. It should come as no surprise that
dreams,which ignore the rules of time, would attract the notice of
those searching for liberatory clues, or that the unconscious, with its
"storms of impulse," frightens those with a stake in the neurosis we call
civilization. Norman O. Brown (1959) saw the sense of time or history
as a function of repression; if repression were abolished, he reasoned, we
would be released from time. Similarly, Coleridge (1801) recognized in
the man of "methodical industry" the origin and creator of time.
In his Critique of Cynical Reason (1987), Peter Sloterdijk called for
the "radical recognition of the Id without reservation," a narcissistic self-
affirmation that would laugh in the face of morose society. Narcissism
has of course traditionally been cast as wicked, the "heresy of self-love."
In reality that meant it was reserved for the ruling classes, while all
others (workers, women, slaves) had to practice submission and self-
effacement (Fine 1 980). The narcissist symptoms are feelings of emptiness,
unreality, alienation, life as no more than a succession of moments,
accompanied by a longing for powerful autonomy and self-
Running on Emptiness
esteem (Alford 1988, Grunberger 1979). Given the appropriateness of
these "symptoms" and desires it is little wonder that narcissism can
be seen as a potentially emancipatory force (Zweig 1980). I t s demand
for total satisfaction is obviously a subversive individualism, at
The narcissist "hates time, denies time" (letter to author, Alford
1993) and this, as always, provokes a severe reaction from the
defenders of time and authority. Psychiatrist E. Mark Stern (1977), for
instance: "Since time begins beyond one's control one must correspond
to its demands.... Courage is the antithesis of narcissism." This
condition, which certainly may include negative aspects, contains the
germ of a different reality principle, aiming at the non-time of perfec-
tion wherein being and becoming are one and including, implicitly,
a halt to time.
I'm not a scientist but I do know that all things begin and end in eternity.
— The Man Who Fell to Earth, Walter Tevis
Science, for our purposes, does not comment on time and
estrangement with anywhere near the directness of, say, psychology.
But science can be re-construed to shed light on the topic at hand,
because of the many parallels between scientific theory and human
"Time," decided N.A. Kozyrev (1971), "is the most important and
the most mysterious phenomenon of Nature. Its notion is beyond the
grasp of imagination. " Some scientists, in fact, have felt (e.g. Dingle
1966) that "all the real problems associated with the notion of time are
independent of physics." Science, and physics in particular, may
indeed not have the last word; it is another source of commentary,
however, though itself alienated and generally indirect.
Is "physical time" the same as the time of which we are conscious;
if not, how does it differ? In physics, time seems to be an undefined
basic dimension, as much a taken-for-granted given as it is outside
the realm of science. This is one way to remind ourselves that, as with
every other kind of thinking, scientific ideas are meaningless outside
their cultural context. They are symptoms of and symbol for the ways
Time and Its Discontents
of living that give rise to them. According to Nietzsche, all writing is
inherently metaphorical, even though science is rarely looked at this
way. Science has developed by drawing an increasingly sharp separa-
tion between inner and outer worlds, between dream and "reality".
This has been accomplished by the mathematization of nature, which
has largely meant that the scientist proceeds by a method that debars him
or her from the larger context, including the origins and significance of
his/her projects. Nonetheless, as H.P. Robinson (1964) stated, "the
cosmologies which humanity has set up at various times and in various
localities inevitably reflect the physical and intellectual environment,
including above all the interests and culture of each society."
Subjective time, as P.C.W.Davies pointed out (1981), "possesses
apparent qualities that are absent from the 'outside' world and which
are fundamental to our conception of reality" — principally the
"passing" of time. Our sense of separation from the world owes largely to
this discrepancy. We exist in time (and alienation), but time is not found in
the physical world. The time variable, though useful to science, is a
theoretical construct. "The laws of science," Stephen Hawking (1988)
explained, "do not distinguish between past and future." Einstein had gone
further than this some thirty years earlier; in one of his last letters, he wrote
that "People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction
between past, present and future is only a stubborn, persistent illusion."
But science partakes of society in other ways concerning time, and very
deeply. The more "rational" it becomes, the more variations in time are
suppressed. Theoretical physics geometrizes time by conceiving it as a
straight line, for example. Science does not stand apart from the cultural
history of time.
As implied above, however, physics does not contain the idea of a
present instant of time that passes (Park 1972). Furthermore, the fun-
damental laws are not only completely reversible as to the 'arrow of time' —
as Hawking noted — but "irreversible phenomena appear as the result of
the particular nature of our human cognition," according to Watanabe
(1953). Once again we find human experience playing a decisive role,
even in this most "objective" realm. Zee (1992) put it this way: "Time is
that one concept in physics we can't talk about without dragging in, at some
level, consciousness. "
Even in seemingly straightforward areas ambiguities exist where
Running on Emptiness
time is concerned. While the complexity of the most complex species
may increase, for example, not all species become more complex,
prompting J.M. Smith (1972) to conclude that it is "difficult to say whether
evolution as a whole has a direction."
In terms of the cosmos, it is argued, "time's arrow" is automatically
indicated by the fact that the galaxies are receding away from each
other. But there seems to be virtual unanimity that as far as the basics
of physics are concerned, the "flow" of time is irrelevant and makes no
sense; fundamental physical laws are completely neutral with regard to
the direction of time (Mehlberg 1961, 1971, Landsberg 1982, Squires
1986, Watanabe 1953, 1956, Swinburne 1986, Morris 1983, Mallove
1987, D'Espagnat 1989, etc.). Modern physics even provides scenarios
in which time ceases to exist and, in reverse, comes into existence. So
why is our world asymmetric in time? Why can't it go backward as
well as forward? This is a paradox, inasmuch as the individual molecu-
lar dynamics are all reversible. The main point, to which I will return
later, is that time's arrow reveals itself as complexity develops, in strik-
ing parallel with the social world.
The flow of time manifests itself in the context of future and past, and
they in turn depend on a referent known as the now. With Einstein
and relativity, it is clear that there is no universal present: we cannot say it
is "now" throughout the universe. There is no fixed interval at all that is
independent of the system to which it refers, just as alienation is dependent
on its context.
Time is thus robbed of the autonomy and objectivity it enjoyed in the
Newtonian world. It is definitely more individually delineated, in Einstein's
revelations, than the absolute and universal monarch it had been. Time
is relative to specific conditions and varies according to such factors as
speed and gravitation. But if time has become more "decentralized," it
has also colonized subjectivity more than ever before. As time and
alienation have become the rule throughout the world, there is little
solace in knowing that they are dependent on varying circumstances. The
relief comes in acting on this understanding; it is the invariance of
alienation that causes the Newtonian model of independently flowing
time to hold sway within us, long after its theoretical foundations were
eliminated by relativity.
Quantum theory, dealing with the smallest parts of the universe, is
Time and Its Discontents
known as the fundamental theory of matter. The core of quantum
theory follows other fundamental physical theories, like relativity, in
making no distinction in the direction of time (Coveney and
Highfield 1991). A basic premise is indeterminism, in which the
movement of particles at this level is a matter of probabilities. Along
with such elements as positrons, which can be regarded as electrons
moving backward in time, and tachyons, faster-than-light particles
that generate effects and contexts reversing the temporal order (Gribbin
1979, Tindley 1993), quantum physics has raised fundamental
questions about time and causality. In the quantum microworld common
accusal relationships have been discovered that transcend time and put
into question the very notion of the ordering of events in time. There
can be "connections and correlations between very distant events in the
absence of any intermediary force or signal" and which occur
instantaneously (Zohar 1982, Aspect 1982). That phenomena in
which action taken now affects the course of events that have already
happened is an inescapable phenomenon of quantum, or particle physics.
Gleick (1992) summed up the situation as follows: "With simultaneity
gone, sequentiality was foundering, causality was under pressure, and
scientists generally felt themselves free to consider temporal possibilities
that would have seemed far-fetched a generation before." At least one
approach in quantum physics has attempted to remove the notion of
time altogether (.T.G. Taylor 1972); D. Park (1972), for instance, said,
"I prefer the atemporal representation to the temporal one."
The bewildering situation in science finds its match in the extremity
of the social world. Alienation, like time, produces ever greater oddities
and pressures: the most fundamental questions finally, almost
necessarily, emerge in both cases.
St. Augustine's fifth century complaint was that he didn't understand
what the measurement of time really consisted of. Einstein, admitting
the inadequacy of his comment, often defined time as "what a clock
measures." Quantum physics, for its part, posits the inseparability of
measurer and what is measured. Via a process physicists don't claim
to understand fully, the act of observation or measurement not only
reveals a particle's condition but actually determines it (Pagels 1983).
This has prompted the question, "Is everything — including time — built
from nothingness by acts of observer-participancy?" Again
Running on Emptiness
a striking parallel, for alienation, at every level and from its origin, requires
exactly such participation, virtually as a matter of definition.
Time's arrow — irrevocable, one-direction-only time — is the
monster that has proven itself more terrifying than any physical projec-
tile. Directionless rime is not time at all, and Cambel (1993) identifies
time directionality as "a primary characteristic of complex systems." The
time-reversible behavior of atomic particles is "generally commuted into
behavior of the system that is irreversible," concluded Schlegel (1961). If
not rooted in the micro world, where does time come from? Where
does our time-bound world come from? It is here that we encounter a
provocative analogy. The small scale world described by physics,
with its mysterious change into the macro world of complex systems,
is analogous to the "primitive" social world and the origins of
division of labor, leading to complex, class-divided society with its
apparently irreversible "progress" .
A generally held tenet of physical theory is that the arrow of time is
dependent on the Second Law of Thermodynamics (e.g. Reichenbach
1956), which asserts that all systems tend toward ever greater disorder
or entropy. The past is thus more orderly than the future. Some proponents
of the Second Law (e.g. Boltzmann 1866) have found in entropic increase
the very meaning of the past-future distinction.
This general principle of irreversibility was developed in the
middle decades of the 19th century, beginning with Carnot in 1824,
when industrial capitalism itself reached its apparent non-reversible
point. If evolution was the century's optimistic application of irre-
versible time, the Second Law of Thermodynamics was its pessimistic
one. In its original terms, it pictured a universe as an enormous heat
engine running down, where work became increasingly subject to inef-
ficiency and disorder. But nature, as Toda (1978) noticed, is not an
engine, does not work, and is not concerned with "order" or "disor-
der". The cultural aspect of this theory _ namely, capital's fear for its
future — is hard to miss.
One hundred and fifty years later, theoretical physicists realize that the
Second Law and its supposed explanation of the arrow of time cannot
be considered a solved problem (Neeman 1982). Many supporters of
reversible time in nature consider the Second Law too superficial, a
secondary law not a primary one (e.g. Haken 1988, Penrose
Time and Its Discontents
1989). Others find the very concept of entropy ill-defined and prob-
lematic, and, related to the charge of superficiality, it is argued that the
phenomena described by the Second Law can be ascribed to particular
initial conditions and do not represent the workings of a general prin-
ciple (Davies 1981, Barrow 1991). Furthermore, not every pair of
events that bear the "afterward" relation the one to the other bear an
entropic difference. The science of complexity (with a wider scope
than chaos theory) has discovered that not all systems tend toward
disorder (Lewin 1992), also contrary to the Second Law. Moreover,
isolated systems, in which no exchanges with the environment are
allowed, display the Second Law's irreversible trend; even the universe
may not be such a closed system. In fact, we don't know whether the
total entropy of the universe is increasing, decreasing, or remaining
Despite such aporias and objections, a movement toward an "irre-
versible physics" based on the Second Law is underway, with quite
interesting implications. 1977 Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine seems to
be the most tireless and public advocate of the view that there is an
innate unidirectional time at all levels of existence. Whereas the funda-
mentals of every major scientific theory, as noted, are neutral with respect
to time, Prigogine gives time a primary emphasis in the universe.
Irreversibility is for him and his like-minded fellow believers an over-
arching primal axiom. In supposedly nonpartisan science, the question of
time has clearly become a political matter.
Prigogine (1985), in a symposium sponsored by Honda and promoting
such projects as Artificial Intelligence: "Questions such as the origin of
life, the origin of the universe, or the origin of matter, can no longer be
discussed without recourse to irreversibility." It is no coincidence that
non-scientist Alvin Toffler, America's leading cheerleader for a high-
tech world, provided an enthusiastic forward for one of the basic texts
of the pro-time campaign, Prigogine and Stenger's Order Out of Chaos
(1984). Prigogine disciple Ervin Laszlo, in a bid to legitimate and extend
the dogma of universally irreversible time, asks whether the laws of
nature are applicable to the human world. He soon answers, in
effect, his own disingenuous question (1985): "The general irreversibil-
ity of technological innovation overrides the indeterminacy of individ-
ual points of bifurcation and drives the proprocesses of history in the
Running On Emptiness
observed direction from primitive tribes to modern techno -industrial
states." How "scientific"! This transposition from the "laws of nature" to
the social world could hardly be improved on as a description of time,
division of labor, and the mega-machine crushing the autonomy or
"reversibility" of human decision. Leggett (1987) expressed this perfectly:
" So it would seem that the arrow of time which appears in the apparently
impersonal subject of thermodynamics is intimately related to what we,
as human agents, can or cannot do."
It is deliverance from "chaos" which Prigogine and others promise
the ruling system, using the model of irreversible time. Capital has always
reigned in fear of entropy or disorder. Resistance, especially resistance to
work, is the real entropy, which time, history, and progress
constantly seek to banish. Prigogine and Stenger (1984) wrote:
"Irreversibility is either true on all levels or none." All or nothing, always
the ultimate stakes of the game.
Since civilization subjugated humanity we have had to live with
the melancholy idea that our highest aspirations are perhaps impossible
in a world of steadily mounting time. The more that pleasure and
understanding are deferred, moved out of reach — and this is the
essence of civilization — the more palpable is the dimension of time.
Nostalgia for the past, fascination with the idea of time travel, and the
heated quest for increased longevity are some of the symptoms of time
sickness, and there seems to be no ready cure. "What does not elapse in
time is the lapse of time itself," as Merleau-Ponty (1962) realized.
In addition to the general antipathy at large, however, it is possible to
point out some recent specifics of opposition. The Society for the
Retardation of Time was established in 1 990 and has a few hundred
members in four European countries. Less whimsical than it may sound,
its members are committed to reversing the contemporary acceleration of
time in everyday life, toward the aim of being allowed to live more
satisfying lives. Michael Theunissen's Negative Theology of Time appeared
in 1991, aimed explicitly at what it sees as the ultimate human enemy. This
work has engendered a very lively debate in philosophical circles (Penta
1993), due to its demand for a negative reconsideration of time.
"Time is the one single movement appropriate to itself in all its
parts," wrote Merleau-Ponty (1962). Here we see the fullness of alien-
ation in the separated world of capital. Time is thought of bv us before
Time and Its Discontents
its parts; it thus reveals the totality. The crisis of time is the crisis of the
whole. Its triumph, apparently well established, was in fact never com-
plete as long as anyone could question the first premises of its being.
Above Lake Silviplana, Nietzsche found the inspiration for Thus Spake
Zarathustra. "Six thousand feet above men and time ..." he wrote in
his journal. But time cannot be transcended by means of a lofty
contempt for humanity, because overcoming the alienation that it generates
is not a solitary project. In this sense I prefer Rexroth's (1968)
formulation: "the only Absolute is the Community of Love with which
Can we put an end to time? Its movement can be seen as the
master and measure of a social existence that has become increasingly
empty and technicized. Averse to all that is spontaneous and immedi-
ate, time more and more clearly reveals its bond with alienation. The
scope of our project of renewal must include the entire length of this
joint domination. Divided life will be replaced by the possibility of
living completely and wholly — timelessly — only when we erase the
primary causes of that division.
A humanities symposium called "Discourse @ Networks
200" was held at Stanford University over the course of
several months in 1997. The following talk on April 23
represents the only dissent to the prevailing high-tech
John Zerzan: Thanks for coming. I'll be your Luddite this afternoon.
The token Luddite, so that it falls on me to uphold this unpopular or
controversial banner. The emphasis will be on breadth more than depth,
and in rather reified terms, owing to time considerations. But I hope it
won't disable whatever cogency there might be to these somewhat
It seems to me we're in a barren, impoverished, technicized place
and that these characteristics are interrelated. Technology claims that it
extends the senses; but this extension, it seems, ends up blunting and
atrophying the senses, instead of what this promise claims. Technology
today is offering solutions to everything in every sphere. You can hardly
think of one for which it doesn't come up with the answer. But it
would like us to forget that in virtually every case, it has created the
problem in the first place that it comes round to say that it will tran-
scend. Just a little more technology. That's what it always says. And I think
we begin to see the results ever more clearly today.
The computer cornucopia, as everything becomes wired into the
computer throughout society, offers variety, the riches of complete access,
and yet, as Frederick Jameson said, we live in a society that is the most
standardized in history.
Let's look at it as a "means and ends" proposition, as in means
and ends must be equally valid. Technology claims to be neutral,
merely a tool, its value or meaning completely dependent on how it is
used. In this way it hides its ends by cloaking its means. If there is no
way to understand what it is in terms of an essence, inner logic, his-
torical embeddedness or other dimension, then what we call technol-
ogy escapes judgment. We generally recognize the ethical precept that
you can't achieve valid or good ends with deficient or invalid means,
but how do we gauge that unless we look at the means? If it's some-
thing we're not supposed to think about in terms of its essential
being, its foundations, it's impossible. I mean, you can repeat any
kind of cliche. This is the kind of thing that one hopes is not a cliche
because the means and ends thesis is a moral value that I think does
have validity .
A number of people or cases could be brought up to further illu-
minate this. For example, Marx early on was concerned with what
technology is, what production and the means of production are, and
determined, as many, many people have, that it's at base division of
labor. And hence it is a vital question how stunting or how negative
division of labor is. But Marx went on from that banality, which
doesn't get very much examined, as we know, to very different ques-
tions, such as which class owns and controls the technology and means
of production, and how does the dispossessed class, the proletariat,
seize that technology from the bourgeoisie. This was quite a different
emphasis from examining and evaluating technology, and represents an
abandonment of his earlier interest.
Of course, by that point, Marx certainly felt that technology is a
positive good. Today the people who say that it's merely a tool, a neutral
thing, that it's purely a matter of instrumental use of technology,
really believe that technology is a positive thing. But they want to be a
little more canny about it, so again, my point is that if you say it's
neutral, then you avoid testing the truth claim that it's positive. In
other words, if you say it's negative or positive, you have to look at
Running On Emptiness
what it is. You have to get into it. But if you say it's neutral, that has
worked pretty well at precluding this examination.
Next, I want to provide a quote that keeps coming back to me, a
very pregnant quote from a brilliant mathematician — and it's not Ted
Kaczynski. It's the British mathematician, Alan Turing, and some of
you, I'm sure, know that he established many of the theoretical foun-
dations for the computer in the 1930s and '40s. Also, it would be
worth mentioning that he took his own life in the '50s because of a
prosecution stemming from the fact that he was gay, somewhat like
the action against Oscar Wilde about 50 years earlier. Anyway, I mention
that — and I don't want to belittle the tragic fact that he was gay and
this was his end because of it — but he took his life by painting an apple
with cyanide and biting into it, and it makes me think of the forbidden fruit
of the tree of knowledge and whether he was saying something about
that, as we know what happened with that. We have work, agriculture,
misery and technology out of that. And I also wonder, in passing, about
Apple computers. Why would they use an apple? It's kind of a mystery
to me. [laughter]
But anyway, after this digression, the quote that I was trying to get
to here. In the middle of an article for the journal Mind in 1950, he
said, "I believe that at the end of the century, the use of words in
general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be
able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contra-
dicted." Now, what I think is of a lot of interest here is that he doesn't
say that by the end of the century we'll have computing machines
(they were still called computing machines at that time) that have
advanced so far that people won't have any trouble understanding,
now, that machines think. He says, "... the use of words in general
educated opinion will have altered so much. "
Now, I'm giving a reading of this which is probably different from
what lie had in mind, but when you think about it, this has to do with
this question of the interrelationship of society and technology. I think
he was quite right; again, not because artificial intelligence — it wasn't
called that back then, of course — had advanced so far. Actually, it hasn't
made very good on its ambitious claims, as I understand it. But some
people now entertain that notion very seriously. In fact, there's even a
small but considerable literature on whether machines feel and
at what point machines live. And that isn't because Artificial Intelli-
gence has gone very far, it seems to me. In the early '80s, there was an
awful lot of talk about "just around the corner," and I'm not an expert
on AI, but I don't think it has gone very far. It plays a pretty good game
of chess, I guess, but I don't think it's anywhere near these other
achievements, or levels.
I think what explains the change in perception about computers is
the deformation caused by the massive amount of alienation that has
happened in the past 50 years or so. That's why some, and I hope not
many, hold to this point about computers living.
In terms of what they are capable of, it seems to me, when you
have the distance narrowing between humans and machines in the
sense that if we are becoming more machine-like, it's easier to see the
machine as more human-like. I don't want to be overly dramatic about
it, but I think people more and more wonder, is this living or are we
just going through the motions? What's happening? Is everything
being leached out of life? Is the whole texture and values and every-
thing kind of draining away? Well, that would take many other lec-
tures, but it's not so much the actual advance of the technology. If
machines can be human, humans can be machines. The truly scary
point is the narrowing of the distance between the two.
Another quotation to similarly mark this descent, if you will, is a
short one from a computer communications expert, J.C.R. Licklider.
In 1968 he said, "In the future, we'll be able to communicate more
effectively through a machine than face-to-face." If that isn't estrange-
ment, I don't know what is. At the same time, one striking aspect in
terms of cultural development is that the concept of alienation is dis-
appearing, has almost disappeared. If you look at the indices of books
in the last, say, 20 years, it isn't there any more. It has become so
banal, I guess, what's the point of talking about it?
I was reading a recent review on another subject by the political
theorist, Anthony Giddens, I think it's Sir Anthony Giddens, actually.
He found it remarkable that "capitalism has disappeared as an object
of study, just when it has removed any alternative to itself." One might
think, what else is there to study in the absence of any other system?
But no one talks about it. It's just a given. It's another commonplace
that is apparently just accepted and not scrutinized.
Running On Emptiness
And, of course, capital is increasingly technologized. A kind of
obvious point. The people who think that it's about surfing the Net
and exchanging e-mail with your cousin in Idaho or something, obvi-
ously neglect the fact that the movement of capital is the computer's
basic function. The computer is there for faster transactions, the faster
movement of commodities and so on. That shouldn't even have to be
So anyway, back to the theme of how the whole field or ground-
work moves and our perception of technology and the values we attach
to it change, usually pretty imperceptibly. Freud said that the fullness
of civilization will mean universal neurosis. And that sounds kind of
too sanguine, when you think about it. I'm very disturbed by what I
I live in Oregon, where the rate of suicide among 15- to 19-year
olds has increased 600% since 1961.1 find it hard to see this as other
than youth getting to the threshold of adulthood and society and
looking out, and what do they see? They see this bereft place. I'm not
saying they consciously go through that sort of formulation, but some
kind of assessment takes place, and some just opt out.
A study of several of the most developed countries is showing that
the rate of serious depression doubles about every ten years. So I guess
that means if there aren't enough people on anti-depressants right now,
just to get through the day, we'll all be taking them before long. You
can just extrapolate from this chilling fact. If you look for a reason why
that won't keep going, what would that be without a pretty total
And many other things. The turn away from literacy. That's a pretty
basic thing that is somewhat baffling, but it isn't baffling if you think
that people are viscerally turning away from what doesn't have meaning
anymore. The outbursts of multiple homicides. That used to be
unheard of, even in this violent country, just a few decades ago. Now
it's spreading to all the other countries. You can hardly pick up the
paper without seeing some horrendous thing in McDonald's or at a
school or someplace in Scotland or New Zealand, as well as LA. or
wherever in the U.S.
Rancho Santa Fe. You probably remember this quote from the
news. It's from a woman who was part of the Heaven's Gate group
there. "Maybe I'm crazy, but I don't care. I've been here 31 years, and
there's nothing here for me." I think that speaks for quite a lot of
people who are surveying the emptiness, not just cult members.
So we're seeing the crisis of inner nature, the prospect of complete
dehumanization, linking up with the crisis of outer nature, which is
obviously ecological catastrophe. And I won't bore you with the latter;
everybody here knows all its features, the accelerating extinction of
species, etc. etc. Up in Oregon, for example, the natural, original
forest is virtually one hundred percent gone; the salmon are on the verge
of extinction. Everybody knows this. And it's so greatly urged along by
the movement of technology and all that is involved there.
Marvin Minsky — I think this was in the early '80s — said that the
brain is a three-pound computer made of meat. He's one of the
leading AI people. And we have all the rest. We have Virtual Reality.
People will be flocking to that, just to try to get away from an objec-
tive social existence that is not too much to look at or deal with. The
cloning of humans, obviously, is just a matter of probably months
away. Fresh horrors all the time.
Education. Get the kids linked up when they're five or so to the
computer. They call it "knowledge production." And that's the best
thing you could say about it.
I want to read one quote here from Hans Moravec from Carnegie-
Mellon, who is a contributor to the periodical Extropy. He says, "The
final frontier will be urbanized ultimately into an arena where every
bit of activity is a meaningful computation. The inhabited portion of
the universe will be transformed into a cyberspace. We might then be
tempted to replace some of our innermost mental processes with more
cyberspace-appropriate programs purchased from artificial intelligence
and so, bit by bit, transform ourselves into something much like it.
Ultimately, our thinking procedures could be totally liberated from
any traces of our original body, indeed of any body." I don't think that
requires any comment.
But, of course, there have been contrary voices. There have been
analysis by people who been pretty worried about the whole develop-
ment. One of the best is Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of
Enlightenment, written in the '40s. If technology is not neutral, they
argue very forcefully, reason isn't a neutral thing either, when you
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think about it. They raise a critique of what they call "instrumental reason,"
that reason, under the sign of civilization and technology, is fundamentally
biased toward distancing and control. I'm not going to try to sum up
the whole thing in a few words, but one of the memorable parts of this
was their look at Odysseus from the Odyssey, from Homer, one of the basic
texts of European civilization, where Odysseus is trying to sail past the
sirens. Horkheimer and Adorno demonstrate that this depicts at a very
early point the tension between the sensuous, Eros, pre -history, pre-
technology, and the project of going past that and doing something else.
Odysseus has his oarsmen tie him to the mast, and stuff their own ears
with wax, so he won't be tempted by pleasure and lie can get through to the
repressive, non-sensuous life of civilization and technology.
Of course, there are many other markers of estrangement.
Descartes, 350 years ago: "We have to become the masters and posses-
sors of nature." But what I think is also worth pointing out in a cri-
tique like Horkheimer and Adorno's and many others, is that they feel
that they have to add the idea that, well, after all, if nature isn't
subdued, that if society doesn't subdue nature, society always will be
subjected to nature and, in effect, there probably won't be any society.
So they always put that caveat, that qualification, which is to their
credit for honesty; but it puts a brake on the implications of their cri-
tique. It makes it less a black-and-white thing, obviously, because, well,
we can't really get away from domination of nature, and that's what the
whole thing is based on, our very existence. We can criticize the tech-
nological life, but where would we be without it?
But something that I think has very, very enormous implications
has happened in the last 20 or 30 years, and I don't think it has yet got
out very much. There has been a wholesale revision in scholarly ideas
of what life outside of civilization really was. One of the basic
ideological foundations for civilization, for religion, the state, police,
armies, everything else, is that you've got a pretty bloodthirsty, awful,
subhuman condition before civilization. It has to be tamed and tutored
and so on. It's Hobbes. It's that famous idea that the pre-civilized life
was nasty, brutish and short, and so to rescue or enable humanity away
from fear and superstition, from this horrible condition into the light
of civilization, you have to do that. You have to have what Freud called
the "forcible renunciation of instinctual freedom. " You just have to.
That's the price.
Anyway, that turns out to be completely wrong. Certainly, there are
disagreements about some of the parts of the new paradigm, some of
the details, and I think most of the literature doesn't draw out its
radical implications. But since about the early 70s, we have a starkly
different picture of what life was like in the two million or so years before
civilization, a period that ended about 10,000 years ago, almost no time
Prehistory is now characterized more by intelligence, egalitarianism
and sharing, leisure time, a great degree of sexual equality, robusticity
and health, with no evidence at all of organized violence. I mean,
that's just staggering. It's virtually a wholesale revision. We're still
living, of course, with the cartoonish images, the caveman pulling the
woman into the cave, Neanderthal meaning somebody who is a com-
plete brute and subhuman, and so on. But the real picture has been
I won't take time here to go into the evidence and the arguments,
but I want to mention just a couple of them. For example, how do we
know about sharing? That sounds like some kind of '60s assertion, right?
But it's simple things like examining the evidence around hearths, around
fire sites, probably in impermanent settlements. If you found around one
fire you've got all the goodies there, well, that looks like the chief and
everybody else has little or nothing. But if everybody has about exactly
the same amount of stuff, it argues for a condition of equality. Thomas
Wynn has helped us see prehistoric intelligence in a different light. He
drew on Piaget quite a bit in terms of what is congealed and/or concealed
in even a simple stone tool, and he kind of deconstructed it to bring out, I
think, about eight different stages and steps and aspects to what it takes to
actually take something like that and make a tool out of it. And he
concluded — and this hasn't been refuted that I see anywhere in the literature
that at least a million years ago, Homo had an intelligence equal to
that of the adult human today. So one would have said, well, okay, even if
it was kind of rosy prior to culture, our distant ancestors were just so dim
they couldn't figure out how to establish agriculture, hierarchy and all the
other wonderful things. But if that's not true, then you start looking at
the whole picture quite differently .
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One other thing: the book Stone Age Economics by Marshall
Sahlins came out in 1972, and a lot of his argument is based on exist-
ing hunter-gatherer peoples, on just simply seeing how much they worked.
Which was very, very little. By the way, he was the chairman of the
anthropology department at the University of Michigan, so we're
not talking about some crank, or a marginal figure. If you look at the
literature in anthropology and archaeology, you see quite amazing
corrections to what we had thought. It makes you start to think, I
guess perhaps civilization wasn't such a good idea. The question that
was always asked was why did it take humanity so long to figure out
agriculture? I mean, they just thought of it yesterday, relatively, less than
10,000 years ago.
Now the question is, why did they ever take up agriculture? Which is
really the question of why did they ever take up civilization? Why did
they ever start our division-of-labor-based technology? If we once had
a technology, if you want to call it that, based on pretty much zero
division of labor, for me that has pretty amazing implications and
makes me think that somehow it's possible to get back there in some
way or another. We might be able to reconnect to a higher condition, one
that sounds to me like a state of nearness to reality, of wholeness.
I'm getting pretty close to the end here. I want to mention Hei-
degger. Heidegger, of course, is thought of by many as one of the deepest
or most original thinkers of the century. He felt that technology is the
end of philosophy, and that's based on his view that as technology
encompasses more and more of society, everything becomes grist for it
and grist for production, even thinking. It loses its separateness, its
quality of being apart from that. His point is worth mentioning just in
And now I get to one of my favorite topics, postmodernism,
which I think is exactly what Heidegger would have had in mind if
he had stuck around long enough to see it. I think that here we have
a rather complete abdication of reason with postmodernism in so
many ways, and it's so pervasive, and so many people don't seem to
know what it is. Though we are completely immersed in it, few even
now seem to have a grasp of it. Perhaps this, in its way, is similar to
the other banalities I referred to earlier. Namely, that which has over-
powered what is alien to it is simply accepted and rarely analyzed.
So I started having to do some homework, and I've done some writing
on it since, and one of the fundamental things — and sorry, for people
who already know this — comes from Lyotard in the 70s, in a book
called The Postmodern Condition. He held that postmodernism is
fundamentally "antipathy to meta-narratives, "meaning it's a refusal of
totality, of the overview, of the arrogant idea that we can have a grasp
of the whole. It's based on the idea that the totality is totalitarian. To
try to think that you can get some sense of the whole thing, that's no
good. And I think a lot of it, by the way, is a reaction against
Marxism, which held sway for so long in France among the intelli-
gentsia; I think there was an overreaction because of that.
So you have an anti-totality outlook and an anti-coherence outlook,
even, because that too is suspect and even thought to be a nasty thing.
After all, and here's the one thing in which he probably concurred with
Horkheimer and Adorno, what has Enlightenment thinking brought us?
What has modernist, overview, totality -oriented thinking got us? Well,
you know, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, neutron bombs. You don't have to
defend those things, though, to get a sense that maybe postmodernism
is throwing everything away and has no defenses against, for one thing, an
Similarly, postmodernists are against the idea of origins. They feel
that the idea of origins is a false one (these are all big generalizations; there
are probably some with slightly different emphases). We are in culture.
We have always been in culture. We always will be in culture. So we
can't see outside of culture. So something like nature versus Culture is just
a false notion. Thus they deny that, too, and further inhibit
understanding the present. You can't go back to any origins or beginning
points of causation or development. Relatedly, history is a fairly
arbitrary fiction; one version is about as good as another.
There's also emphasis on the fragmentary, pluralism, diversity, the
random. But I ask you, where is the random? Where is the diversity?
Where is it? To me, the world is getting so stark and monolithic in
terms of the general movement of things and what the meaning of this
movement is. To play around with this emphasis on margins and sur-
faces, this attitude that you can't get below the surface, to me is ethical
and intellectual cowardice. "Truth and meaning?" Well, that's just non-
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sense. That's passe. Always put terms like those in quotes. You see pretty
much everything in quotes when you look at postmodern writing. So
it's a lot of irony, of course. Irony verging on cynicism is the thing you
can now see everywhere in popular culture. In terms of postmodernism,
that's close to the whole thing. Everything is shifting. It's just so splin-
tered and everything. I don't quite get how it is possible to evade what
is going on vis-a-vis the individual and what is left of nature.
I think postmodernism is a great accomplice to technology, and
often explicitly so, often as an explicit embrace of it. Lyotard also said
that "data banks are the new nature." Of course, if he rules out origins,
how does he know what nature is? They have their own set of really
totality -type assumptions, but they don't cop to it. It's only the old-
fashioned people, I guess, who don't want to play that game.
One more quote: this is from a Professor Escobar in the June 1994
issue of Current Anthropology. It really has a lot to do with how
technology defines what is the norm and what is ruled out. He said,
" Technological innovations in dominant world views generally transform
each other so as to legitimate and naturalize the technologies of the time.
Nature and society come to be explained in ways that reinforce the
technological imperatives of the day." I think that's really well put.
So I started with one basic fallacy — 1 think it's a basic fallacy — about
technology. That is the point that technology is not neutral, not a
discrete tool somehow separate from its social placement or develop-
ment as a part of society. I think the other one, or another one, is that
okay, you can talk all you want about technology, but it's here, it's
inexorable, and what's the point of talking about it? Well, it isn't
inevitable. It's only inevitable if we don't do anything about it. If we
just go along, then it is inevitable. I think that's the obvious challenge.
The unimaginable will happen. It's already happening. And if we have
a future it will be because we stand up to it and have a different vision
and think about dismantling it.
I also think, by the way, that if we have a future, we may have a
different idea about who the real criminals are, and who, like John Brown
perhaps, the Unabomber might be seen to resemble. Who, like John
Brown, tried to save us.
THAT THING WE Do
From the Latin re, or thing, reification is essentially thingification. Theodor
Adorno, among others, asserted that society and consciousness have
become almost completely reified. Through this process, human practices
and relations come to be seen as external objects. What is living ends
up treated as a non-living thing or abstraction, and this turn of events is
experienced as natural, normal, unchallenged.
In Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss provides an image of this
reifying process, in terms of the atrophy of European civilization: "...
like some aging animal whose thickening hide has formed an imper-
ishable crust around its body and, by no longer allowing the skin to
breathe, is hastening the aging process.'" The loss of meaning, imme-
diacy, and spiritual vibrancy in Western civilization is a mapr theme
in the works of Max Weber, and also bears on the reification of
modern life. That this failing of life and enchantment seems
somehow inevitable and unchangeable, largely just taken for granted, is
as important as the reified outcome, and is inseparable from it.
How did human activities and connections become separate from
their subjects and take on a thing-like "life" of their own? And given
the evident waning of belief in society's institutions and categories,
what holds the "things" in thing-ified society together?
Terms like reification and alienation, in a world more and more
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comprised of the starkest forms of estrangement, are no longer to be
found, in the literature that supposedly deals with this world. Those
who claim to have no ideology are so often the most constrained and
defined by the prevailing ideology they cannot see, and it is possible
that the highest degree of alienation is reached where it no longer
Reification became a widely employed term as defined by the marxist
Georg Lukacs: namely, a form of alienation issuing from the commodity
fetishism of modern market relations. Social conditions and the plight
of the individual have become mysterious and impenetrable as a
function of what we now commonly refer to as consumerist capitalism. We
are crushed and blinded by the reifying force of the stage of capital that
began in the 20th century.
I think, however, that it may be useful to re-cast reification so as to
establish a much deeper meaning and dynamic. The merely and
directly human is in fact being drained away as surely as nature itself
has been tamed into an object. In the frozen universe of commodities,
the reign of things over life is obvious, and that coldness that Adorno
saw as the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity is plumbing new
But if reification is the central mechanism whereby the commod-
ity form permeates the entire culture, it is also much more than that.
Kant knew the term, and it was Hegel, soon after, who made major
use of it (and objectification, its rough equivalent). He discovered a radical
lack of being at the heart of the subject; it is here that we may fruitfully
The world presents itself to us — and we re-present it. Why the
need to do that? Do we know what symbols really symbolize? Is truth
that which must be possessed, not re -presented? Signs are basically signals,
that is, correlative; but symbols are substitutive.
As Husserl put it, " The symbol exists effectively at the point where
it introduced something more than life. . . ""Reification may be an
unavoidable corollary or by-product of symbolization itself.
At a minimum, there seem to be reified fundamentals in all net-
works of domination. Calendars and clocks formalize and further reify
time, which was likely the first reification of all. The divided social
structure is a reified world largely because it is a symbolic structure of
That Thing We Do
roles and images, not persons. Power crystallizes into networks of
domination and hierarchy as reification enters the equation very early
on. In the current productionist world, extreme division of labor ful-
fills its original meaning. Made increasingly passive and meaningless,
we endlessly reify ourselves. Our mounting impoverishment approaches
the condition in which we are mere things.
Reification permeates postmodern culture, in which only appear-
ances change, and appear alive. The dreadfulness of our postmodernity
can be seen as a destination of the history of philosophy, and a destina-
tion of a good deal more than just philosophy. History qua history
begins as loss of integrity, immersion in an external trajectory that
tears the self into parts. The denial of human choice and effective agency is
as old as division of labor; only its drastic development or fullness is new.
About 250 years ago the German romantic Novalis complained
that "the meaning of life has been lost.'" Widespread questioning of
the meaning of life only began at about this time, just as industrialism
made its very first inroads.' From this point on, an erosion of meaning
has quickly accelerated, reminding us that the substitutive function of
symbolization is also prosthetic. The replacement of the living by the
artificial, like technology, involves a thingification. Reification is always, at
least in part, a techno-imperative.
Technology is "the knack of so arranging the world that we need not
experience it.'" We are expected to deny what is living and natural within us
in order to acquiesce in the domination of non-human nature. Technology
has unmistakably become the great vehicle of reification. Not forgetting that
it is embedded in and embodies an ever-expanding, global field of capital,
reification subordinates us to our own objectified creations. ("Things are in
the saddle and ride mankind," observed Emerson in the mid-19th century.)
Nor is this a recent turn of events; rather, it reflects the master code of
culture, ab origino. The separation from nature, and its ensuing
pacification and manipulation, make one ask, is the individual vanishing?
Has culture itself set this in motion? How has it come to pass that a
formulation as reified as "children are our most precious resource" does
not seem repugnant to everyone?
We are captives of so much that is not only instrumental, fodder
for the functioning of other manipulable things, but also ever more
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simulated. We are exiles from immediacy, in a fading and flattening
landscape where thought struggles to unlearn its alienated condition-
ing. Merleau-Ponty failed in his quest, but at least aimed at finding a
primordial ontology of vision prior to the split between subject and
object. It is division of labor and the resulting conceptual forms of thought
that go unchallenged, delaying discovery of reification and reified
It is, after all, our whole way of knowing that has been so
deformed and diminished, and that must be understood as such.
"Intelligence" is now an externality to be measured, equated to profi-
ciency in manipulating symbols. Philosophy has become the highly
elaborate rationalization of reifications. And even more generally, being
itself is constituted as experience and representation, as subject and object.
These outcomes must be criticized as fundamentally as possible.
The active, living element in cognition must be uncovered, beneath
the reifications that mask it. Cognition, despite contemporary ortho-
doxy, is not computation. The philosopher Ryle glimpsed that a form of
knowledge that does not rely on symbolic representation might be the
basic one.' Our notions of reality are the products of an artificially
constructed symbol system, whose components have hardened into
reifications or objectifications over time, as division of labor coalesced into
domination of nature and domestication of the individual.
Thought capable of producing culture and civilization is distanc-
ing, non-sensuous. It abstracts from the subject and becomes an inde-
pendent object. It's telling that sensations are much more resistant to
reification than are mental images. Platonic discourse is a prime example of
thinking that proceeds at the expense of the senses, in its radical split
between perceptions and conceptions. Adorno draws attention to the
healthier variant by his observation that in Walter Benjamin's writings
"thought presses close to the object, as if through touching, smelling,
tasting, it wanted to transform itself."' And Le Roy is probably very
close to the mark with "we resign ourselves to conception only for want
of perception."' Historically determined in the deepest sense, the
reification aspect of thought is a further cognitive "fall from grace."
Husserl and others figured symbolic representation as originally
designed to be only a temporary supplement to authentic expression.
That Thing We Do
Reification enters the picture in a somewhat parallel fashion, as repre-
sentation passes from the status of a noun used for specific purposes to
that of an object. Whether or not these descriptive theses are adequate,
it seems at least evident that an ineluctable gap exists between the
concept's abstraction and the richness of the web or phenomena. To
the point here is Heidegger's conclusion that authentic thinking is non-
conceptual," a kind of "reverential listening.'"
Always of the utmost relevance is the violence that a steadily
encroaching technological ethos perpetrates against lived experience.
Gilbert Germain has understood how the ethos forcefully promotes a
"forgetfulness of the linkage between reflective thought and the direct
perceptual experience of the world from which it arises and to which it
ought to return." 10 Engels noted in passing that "human reason has
developed in accordance with man's alteration of nature,"" a mild way
of referring to the close connection between objectifying, instrumen-
talizing reason and progressive reification.
In any case, the thought of civilization has worked to reduce the
abundance that yet manages to surround us. Culture is a screen through
which our perceptions, ideas, and feelings are filtered and domesticated.
According to Jean-Luc Nancy, the main thing representational thought
represents is its limit. 12 Heidegger and Wittgenstein, possibly the most
original of 20th century thinkers, ended up disclaiming philosophy along
The reified life-world progressively removes what questions it. The
literature on society raises ever fewer basic questions about society, and
the suffering of the individual is now rarely related to even this
unquestioned society. Emotional desolation is seen as almost entirely a
matter of freely -occurring "natural" brain or chemical abnormalities, having
nothing to do with the destructive context the individual is generally left to
blindly endure in a drugged condition.
On a more abstract level, reification can be neutralized by conflat-
ing it with obj edification, which is defined in a way that places it beyond
questioning. Objectification in this sense is taken to mean an awareness of
the existence of subjects and objects, and the fact of the self as both
subject and object. Hegel, in this vein, referred to it as the very essence
of the subject, without which there can be no development. Adorno saw
some reification as a necessary element in the neces-
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sary process of human objectification. As he became more pessimistic
about the realization of a de -reified society, Adorno used reification
and objectification as synonyms," completing a demoralized retreat
from fully calling either term into question.
I think it may be instructive to accept the two terms as synony-
mous, not to end up accepting them both but to entertain the notion
of exploring basic alienation. All objectification requires an alienation
of subject from object, which is fundamental, it would seem, to the
goal of reconciling them. How did we get to this horrendous present,
definable as a condition in which the reified subject and the reified
object mutually entail one another? How is it that, as William Desmond
put it, "the intimacy of being is dissolved in the modern antithesis of
subject and object?"
As the world is shaped via objectification, so is the subject: the world
as a field of objects open to manipulation. Objectification, as the
basis for the domination of nature as external, alien other, presents
itself. Clearer still is the use of the term by Marx and Lukacs as the natural
means by which humans master the world.
The shift from objects to objectification, from reality to construc-
tions of reality, is also the shift to domination and mystification.
Objectification is the take-off point for culture, in that it is makes
domestication possible. It reaches its full potential with the onset of division
of labor; the exchange principle itself moves on the level of objectification.
Similarly, none of the institutions of divided society are powerful or
determinative without a reified element.
The philosopher Croce considered it sheer rhetoric to speak of a
beautiful river or flower; to him, nature was stupid compared to art.
This elevation of the cultural is possible only through objectification.
The works of Kafka, on the other hand, portray the outcome of objec-
tifying cultural logic, with their striking illustration of a reified land-
scape that crushes the subject.
Representation and production are the foundations of reification,
which cements and extends their empire. Reification's ultimately distancing,
domesticating orientation decrees the growing separation between reduced,
rigidified subjects and an equally objectified field of experience. As the
Siruationist line goes, today the eye sees only things and their prices. The
genesis of this outlook is vastly older than their
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formulation denotes; the project of de -objectification can draw strength
from the human condition that obtained before reification developed. A
"future primitive" is called for, where a living involvement with the
world, and fluid, intimate participation in nature will replace the
thingified reign of symbolic civilization.
The very first symptom of alienated life is the very gradual appear-
ance of time. The first reification and increasingly the quintessential
one, time is virtually synonymous with alienation. We are now so per-
vasively ruled and regulated by this "it" which of course has no con-
crete existence that thinking of a pre-civilized, timeless epoch is extremely
Time is the symptom of symptoms to come. The relationship of
subject and object must have been radically different before temporal
distance advanced into the psyche. It has come to stand over us as an
external thing — predecessor to work and the commodity, separate and
dominating as described by Marx. This de-presentizing force implies
that de-reification would mean a return to the eternal present wherein
we lived before we entered the pull of history.
E.M. Cioran asks, "How can you help resenting the absurdity of
time, its march into the future, and all the nonsense about evolution
and progress? Why go forward, why live in time."" Walter Benjamin's
plea for shattering the reified continuity of history was somewhat simi-
larly based on his yearning for a wholeness or unity of experience. At
some point, the moment itself matters and does not rely on other moments
It was of course the clock that completed the reification, by dissoci-
ating time from human events and natural processes. Time by now was
fully exterior to life and incarnated in the first fully mechanized device.
In the 15th century Giovanni Tortelli wrote that the clock "seems to be
alive, since it moves of its own accord." " Time had come to measure its
contents, no longer contents measuring time. We so often say we "don't
have time," but it is the basic reification, time, that has us.
Fragmented life cannot become the norm without the primary
victory of time. The complexity, particularity, and diversity of all living
creatures cannot be lost to the standardizing realm of the quantitative
without this key objectification.
The question of the origin of reification is a compelling one that
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has rarely been pursued deeply enough. A common error has been to
confuse intelligence with culture; namely, the absence of culture is seen
as equivalent to the absence of intelligence. This confusion is further
compounded when reification is seen as inherent to the nature of
mental functioning. From Thomas Wynn" and others we now know
that pre -historic humans were our equals in intelligence. If culture is
impossible without obj edification, it does not follow that either is
inevitable, or desirable.
As suspicious as Adorno was of the idea of origins, he conceded
that human conduct originally involved no objectification.18 Husserl
was similarly able to refer to the primordial oneness of all conscious-
ness prior to its dissociation."
Bringing this condition of life into focus has proven elusive at best.
Levi-Strauss began his anthropological work with such a quest in mind: "I
had been looking for a society reduced to its simplest expression. That of
the Nambikwara was so truly simple that all I could find was human
beings. " " In other words, he was really still looking for symbolic culture,
and seemed ill-equipped to ponder the meaning of its absence. Herbert
Marcuse wanted human history to conform to nature as a subject-object
harmony, but he knew that "history is the negation of nature. "21 The
postmodern outlook positively celebrates the reifying presence of history
and culture by denying the possibility that a pre-objectificational state ever
existed. Having surrendered to representation — and every other basic
given of past, present, and future barrenness — the postmodernists could
scarcely be expected to explore the genesis of reification.
If not the original reification, language is the most consequential,
as cornerstone of representational culture. Language is the reification
of communication, a paradigmatic move that establishes every other
mental separation. The philosopher W.V. Quine's variation on this is
that reification arrives with the pronoun."
"In the beginning was the Word ..." the beginning of all this, which
is killing us by limiting existence to many things. Corollary of
symbolization, reification is a sclerosis that chokes off what is living,
open, natural. In place of being stands the symbol. If it is impossible for
us to coincide with our being, Sartre argues in Being and Nothingness,
then the symbolic is the measure of that non-coincidence. Reification seals
the deal, and language is its universal currency.
That Thing We Do
An exhausted symbolic mediation with less and less to say prevails
in a world where that mediation is now seen as the central, even defin-
ing fact of life. In an existence without vibrancy or meaning, nothing
is left but language. The relation of language to reality has dominated
20th century philosophy. Wittgenstein, for example, was convinced that
the foundation of language and of linguistic meaning is the very basis of
This "linguistic turn" appears even more profound if we consider
the entire species-sense of language, including its original impact as a
radical departure. Language has been fundamental to our obligation to
objectify ourselves, in a milieu that is increasingly not our own. Thus
it is absurd for Heidegger to say that the truth about language is that it
refuses to be objectified. The reificational act of language impoverishes
existence by creating a universe of meaning sufficient unto itself. The
ultimate "sufficient unto itself" is the concept "God," and its ultimate
description is, revealingly, "I am Who I am" (Exodus 4: 14). We have
come to regard the separate, self-enclosed nature of objectification as
the highest quality, evidently, rather than as the debasement of the "merely"
contingent, relational, connected.
It has been recognized for some time that thought is not language-
dependent and that language limits the possibilities of thought."
Gottlob Frege wondered if to think in a non-reified way is possible,
how it could be possible to explain how thinking can ever be reified.
The answer was not to be found in his chosen field of formal logic.
In fact, language does proceed as a thing external to the subject,
and molds our cognitive processes. Classic psychoanalytic theory
ignored language, but Melanie Klein discussed symbolization as a
precipitant of anxiety. To translate Klein's insight into cultural terms,
anxiety about erosion of a non-objectified life-world provokes lan-
guage. We experience "the urge to thrust against language,"" when we
feel that we have given up our voices, and are left only with language.
The enormity of this loss is suggested in C.S. Peirce's definition of
the self as mainly a consistency of symbolization; "my language,"
conversely, "is the sum total of my self," he concluded." Given this
kind of reduction, is not difficult to agree with Lacan that induction
into the symbolic world generates a persistent yearning that arises from
one's absence from the real world. "The speechform
Running On Emptiness
is a mere surrogate," wrote Joyce in Finnegan's Wake.
Language refutes every appeal to immediacy by dishonoring the
unique and immobilizing the mobile. Its elements are independent
entities from the consciousness that utters them, which in turn weigh
down that consciousness. According to Quine, this reification plays a
part in creating a "structured system of the world," by closing up the
"loose ends of raw experience."" Quine does not recognize the limit-
ing aspects of this project. In his incomplete final work, the phenome-
nologist Merleau-Ponty began to explore how language diminishes an
original richness, how it actually works against perception.
Language, as a separate medium, does indeed facilitate a structured
system, based on itself, that deals with anarchic "loose ends" of experience.
It accomplishes this, basically in the service of division of labor, by
avoiding the here and now of experience. "Seeing is forgetting the name
of the thing one sees," an anti-reification statement by Paul Valery"
suggests how words get in the way of direct apprehension. The
Murngin of northern Australia saw name-giving as a kind of death, the
loss of an original wholeness." A pivotal moment of reification
occurred when we succumbed to names and became inscribed in letters.
It is perhaps when we most need to express ourselves, fully and
completely, that language most clearly reveals its reductive and inartic-
Language itself corrupts, as Rousseau claimed in his famous dream
of a community stripped of it. The path beyond the claims of reifica-
tion involves breaking representation's age-old spell.
Another basic avenue of reification is ritual, which originated as a
means to instill conceptual and social order. Ritual is an objectified schema
of action, involving symbolic behavior that is standardized and repetitive. It
is the first fetishizing of culture, and points decisively toward
domestication. Concerning the latter, ritual can be seen as the original
model of calculability of production. Along these lines, Georges
Condominas challenged the distinction that is ordinarily made between
ritual and agriculture. His fieldwork in Southeast Asia led him to see
ritual as an integral component of the technology of traditional
Mircea Eliade has described religious rites as real only to the extent
that they imitate or symbolically repeat some kind of archetypal event,
That Thing We Do
adding that participation is felt to be genuine only to the extent of this
identification; that is, only to the extent that the partic'pant ceases to be
himself or herself. " Thus the repetitive ritual act is very closely related to
the depersonalizing, devaluing essence of division of labor, and at the
same time approaches a virtual definition of the reifying process itself. To
lose oneself in fealty to an earlier, frozen event or moment: to become
reified, a thing that owes its supposed authenticity to some prior
Religion, like the rest of culture, springs from the false notion of the
necessity for combat against the forces of nature. The powers of nature are
reified, along with those of their religious or mythological counterparts.
From animism to deism, the divine develops against a natural world
depicted as increasingly threatening and chaotic. J.G. Frazier saw religious
and magical phenomena as "the conscious conversion of what had hitherto
been regarded as living beings into impersonal substances. " " To deify is to
reify, and a November 1997 discovery by archaeologist Juan Vadeum
helps us situate the domesticating context of this movement. In Chiapas,
Mexico, Vadeum found four Mayan stone carvings that represent original
" grandfathers" of wisdom and power.
Significantly, these figures of seminal importance to Mayan religion
and cosmology symbolize War, Agriculture, Trade, and Tribute. " As
Feuerbach noted, every important stage in the history of human civilization
begins with religion," and religion serves civilization both substantively
and formally. In its formal aspect, the reify ing nature of religion is the
most potent contribution of all.
Art is the other early objectification of culture, which is what makes it
into a separate activity and gives it reality. Art is also a quasi -Utopian
promise of happiness, always broken. The betrayal resides largely in the
reification. "To be a work of art means to set up a world," according to
Heidegger," but this counter-world is powerless against the rest of the
objectified world of which it remains a part.
Georg Simmel described the triumph of form over life, the danger
posed to individuality by the surrender to form. The dualism of form
and content is the blueprint for reification itself, and partakes in the
basic divisions of class society.
At base there is an abstract and somewhat narrow similarity to all
aesthetic appearance. This is due to a severe restriction of the sensual,
Running on Emptiness
enemy number one of reification. And remembering our Freud, it is
the curbing of Eros that makes culture possible. Can it be an accident
that the three senses that are excluded from art — touch, smell, and taste —
are the senses of sensual love?
Max Weber recognized that culture "appears as man's emancipation
from the organically prescribed cycle of natural life. For this very reason,"
he continued, "culture's every step forward seems condemned to lead to
an ever more devastating senselessness."" The representation of culture
is followed by pleasure in representation that replaces pleasure per se.
The will to create culture overlooks the violence in and of culture, a
violence that is inescapable given culture's basis in fragmentation and
separation. Every reification forgets this.
For Homer, the idea of barbarism was of a piece with the absence
of agriculture. Culture and agriculture have always been linked by
their common basis of domestication; to lose the natural within us is
to lose nature without. One becomes a thing in order to master things.
Today the culture of global capitalism abandons its claim to be
culture, even as the production of culture exceeds the production of
goods. Reification, the process of culture, dominates when all awaits
naturalization, in a constantly transformed environment that is "natural"
in name only. Objects themselves — and even the "social" relationships
among them — are seen as real only insofar as they are recognized as
existing in mediaspace or cyberspace.
A domesticating reification renders everything, including us, its
objects. And these objects possess less and less originality or aura, as
discussed by commentators from Baudelaire and Morris to Benjamin
and Baudrillard. "Now from America empty indifferent things are
pouring across, sham things, dummy life," wrote Rilke." Meanwhile
the whole natural world has become a mere object.
Postmodern practice severs things from their history and context,
as in the device of inserting "quotations" or arbitrarily juxtaposed
elements from other periods into music, painting, novels. This gives
the objects a rootless autonomy of sorts, while subjects have little or
We seem to be objects destroyed by objectification, our grounding
and authenticity leached away. We are like the schizophrenic who actively
experiences himself as a thing.
That Thi ng we Do
There is a coldness, even a deadness, that is becoming impossible to
deny. A palpable sense of "something missing" inheres in the unmistak-
able impoverishment of a world objectifying itself. Our only hope may
lie precisely in the fact that the madness of the whole is so apparent.
It is still maintained that reification is an ontological necessity in a
complex world, which is exactly the point. The de-reifying act must be
the return to simple, non-divided life. The life congealed and. con-
cealed in petrified thingness cannot reawaken without a vast undoing of
this ever-more standardized, massified lost world. .
Until fairly recently — until civilization — nature was a subject, not
an object. In hunter-gatherer societies no strict division or hierarchy
existed between the human and the non-human. The participatory
nature of vanished connectedness has to be restored, that condition in
which meaning was lived, not objectified into a grid of symbolic culture.
The very positive picture we now have of pre-history establishes a
perspective of anticipatory remembrance: there is the horizon of
This prior participation with nature is the reverse of the domina-
tion and distancing at the heart of reification. It reminds us that all
desire is a desire for relationship, at its best reciprocal and animate. To
enable this nearness or presence is a gigantic practical project, that will
make an end to these dark days.
1. Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (New York, 1972), p. 382.
2. Edmund Husserl, Le Discours et le Symbole (Paris, 1962), p. 66.
3. Novalis, Schriften, vol. //(Stuttgart, 1965-1977), p. 594.
4. Iddo Landau, "Why Has the Question of the Meaning of Life Arisen in the
Last Two and a Half Centuries?" Philosophy Today, Summer 1967.
5. Quote attributed to the playwright Max Frisch. Source unknown.
6. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of 'Mind (London, 1949)
7. Theodor Adorno, Prisms (Cambridge, 198 1), p. 240.
8. Eduoard Le Roy, The New Philosophy of Henri Bergson (New York, 1913), p. 156.
9. Martin Heidegger, "What is Thinking?" inBasic Writings (New York, 1969)
66 Running On Emptiness
10. Gilbert B. Germain, A Discourse on Disenchantment (Albany, 1992), p
11. Friedrich Engels, Dialectic of Nature (Moscow, 1934), p. 231.
12. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence (Stanford, 1993), p. 2.
13. Theodor Adorno, Prisms (Cambridge, 1983) p. 262, for example.
14. William Desmond, Perplexity and Ultimacy (Albany, 1995), p. 64.
15. E.M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair (Chicago, 1990), p. 126.
16. Giovanni Tortelli, De Orthographic, 1471.
17. Thomas Wynn, The Evolution of Spatial Competence (Urbana, 1989).
18. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis, 1997), pp. 118, 184.
19. Edmund Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental
Phenomenology (Evanston, 1970)
20. Levi-Strauss, op.cit., p. 358.
21. Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (Boston, 1964), p. 236.
22. WV Quine, From Stimulus to Science (Cambridge, 1995), p. 27.
23. Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The Roots of Thinking (Philadelphia, 1990)
24. Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics,"
Philosophical Review 74 (1965), p. 12.
25. C.S. Peirce, Collected Papers (Cambridge, 1931-1958), vol. 5, pp.
26. Quine, op.cit., p. 29.
27. Quotation is title of Robert Irwin's autobiographical work (Berkeley,
28. Bradd B. Shore, Culture in Mind (New York, 1996), p. 222.
29. Georges Condominas, We Have Eaten the Forest (New York, 1977).
30. Mircea Eliade, quoted in False Consciousness, by Joseph Gabel
(Oxford, 1975), p. 39.
31. J.G. Frazier, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (New
York, 1932-36), XLIX, P. 74.
32. Mark Stevenson, "Mayan Stone's Discovery May Confirm Ancient
Text" (Associated Press, November 17, 1997).
33. Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion (New York,
ENEMY OF THE STATE :
AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN
Interview by Derrick Jensen, published in The Sun,
My conversation with John Zerzan was as free -form as I might have
expected of a meeting between two anarchists. (Though I call mysejan
anarchist, I'd before met one outside the covers of a book) What I
hadn't expected was Zerzan 's soft^oken character. His writing is so sharp,
uncompromising, and tenacious that IV halfway feared he would be as
fierce in person as he is on the page. I was pleasantly disappointed: he is
one of the most gracious, courteous, and simply nice people I've ever met. I
shouldn't have been surprised. Anarchism is not only the desire to be free of
domination, but also the desire not to dominate others personally. This
abhorrence to manipulate permeates Zerzan's personality. He is also an
extraordinarily good listener. This latter trait, though desirable in a friend,
made my task as an interviewer much more difficult. Much as I tried to turn
this into a "normal" interview, Zerzan steadfastly refused to play the role
ofguru. Finally, I quit trying to place him in a role he clearly did not want
and just let the tape recorder run while we talked.
D J : What is Anarchism?
JZ: I would say Anarchism is the attempt to eradicate all forms of
Running On Emptiness
domination. This includes not only such obvious forms as the nation-
state, with its routine use of violence and the force of law, and the cor-
poration, with its institutionalized irresponsibility, but also such inter-
nalized forms as patriarchy, racism, homophobia. Also it is the attempt
to expose the ways our philosophy, religion, economics, and other ide-
ological constructions perform their primary function, which is to
rationalize or naturalize — make seem natural — the domination that pervades
our way of life: the destruction of the natural world or of indigenous
peoples, for example, comes not as the result of decisions actively made
and actions pursued, but instead, so we convince ourselves, as a
manifestation of Darwinian selection, or God's Will, or economic
exigency. Beyond that, Anarchism is the attempt to look even into those
parts of our everyday lives we accept as givens, as parts of the universe,
to see how they, too, dominate us or facilitate our domination of others.
What is the role of division of labor in the alienation and destruction
we see around us? Even more fundamentally, what is the relationship
between domination and time, numbers, language, or even symbolic
The place where this definition gets a little problematic is that some
Anarchists see some things as dominating, and some don't. For example,
some Anarchists don't see the technological imperative as a category of
domination. I do, and more and more Anarchists are finding themselves
taking this anti-technological position. The further we follow this path
of the technicization of both our interior and exterior lives, fewer and
fewer Anarchists — and this is true as well of people who don't call
themselves Anarchists — valorize technology and production and progress
and the categories of modern technological life.
Back to the definition. Most fundamentally I would see Anar-
chism as a synonym for anti-authoritarianism.
DJ: Isn't all this just tilting at windmills? Has such a condition ever
existed, where relations have not been based on domination?
JZ: That was the human condition for at least 99 percent of our exis-
tence as a species, from well before the emergence of Homo sapiens,
probably all the way back for at least a couple of million years, until
perhaps only 10,000 years ago, with the emergence of first agriculture
and then civilization.
Enemy of the State
Since that time we have worked very hard to convince ourselves that
no such condition ever existed, because if no such condition ever existed,
it's futile to work toward it now. We may as well then accept the
repression and subjugation that define our way of living as necessary
antidotes to "evil human nature." After all, according to this line of
thought, our pre-civihzed existence of deprivation, brutality, and
ignorance made authority a benevolent gift that rescued us from sav-
Think about the images that come to mind when you mention the
labels "cave man," or "Neanderthal." Those images are implanted and
then invoked to remind us where we would be without religion, gov-
ernment, and toil, and are probably the biggest ideological justifications
for the whole van of civilization — armies, religion, law, the state — without
which we would all live the brutal cliches of Hobbes.
The problem with those images, of course, is that they are entirely
wrong. There has been a potent revolution in the fields of anthropology
and archaeology over the past 20 years, and increasingly people are coming
to understand that life before agriculture and domestication — in which
by domesticating others we domesticated ourselves — was in fact
largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual
equality, and health.
DJ: How do we know this?
JZ: In part through observing modern foraging peoples — what few
we've not yet eliminated — and watching their egalitarian ways disap-
pear under the pressures of habitat destruction and oftentimes direct
coercion or murder. Also, at the other end of the time scale, through
interpreting archaeological digs. An example of this has to do with the
sharing that is now understood to be a keynote trait of non-domesti-
cated people. If you were to study hearth sites of ancient peoples, and
to find that one fire site has the remains of all the goodies, while other
sites have very few, then that site would probably be the chiefs. But if
time after time you see that all the sites have about the same amount of
stuff, what begins to emerge is a picture of a people whose way of life is
based on sharing. And that's what is consistently found in preneolithic
sites. A third way of knowing is based on the accounts of early European
explorers, who again and again spoke of the generosity
Running On Emptiness
and gentleness of the peoples they encountered. This is true all across
DJ: How do you respond to people who say this is all just nutty
Rousseauvian noble savage nonsense?
JZ: I respectfully suggest they read more within the field. This isn't
Anarchist theory. It's mainstream anthropology and archaeology. There
are disagreements about some of the details, but not about the general
D.T: But what about the Aztecs, or stories we're told of headhunters or
JZ: Considering that our culture is the only one to ever invent
napalm or nuclear weapons, I'm not sure we're in much of a moral
place to comment on the infinitely smaller-scale violence of other cul-
tures. But it's important to note a great divide in the behavior of indigenous
groups. None of the cannibal or headhunting groups — and certainly not
the Aztecs — were true hunter-gatherers. They had already begun
agriculture. It is now generally conceded that agriculture usually leads to
a rise in labor, a decrease in sharing, an increase in violence, a shortening
of lifespan, and so on. This is not to say that all agricultural societies
are violent, but to point out that this violence is not by and large
characteristic of true hunter-gatherers.
DJ: Can you define domestication?
JZ: It's the attempt to bring free dimensions under control for self-
DJ: If things were so great before, why did agriculture begin?
JZ: That's a very difficult question, because for so many hundreds of
thousands of years, there was very little change, it was almost frozen.
That's long been a source of frustration to scholars in anthropology and
archaeology: how could there have been almost zero change for hundreds
of thousands of years — the whole lower and middle Paleolithic — and then
suddenly at a certain point in the upper Paleolithic there's this
explosion, seemingly out of nowhere? You suddenly have art, and on the
heels of that, agriculture. Virtual activity. Religion.
Enemy of the State
And what's especially striking, it seems to me, is that now
we see that the intelligence of humanity a million years ago
was equal to what it is now. Thomas Wynn, for example, argues
this very persuasively. Recently there was a piece in Nature
magazine of a new finding that humans may have been sailing and
navigating around what is now Micronesia some 800,000 years
ago. All of this means that the reason civilization didn't arise
earlier had nothing to do with intelligence. The intelligence
argument has always been both comforting and racist anyway,
comforting in that it reduces the role of choice by implying that
those who are intelligent enough to build a lifestyle like ours
necessarily will, and racist in implying that even those humans
alive today who live primitive lifestyles are simply too stupid to
do otherwise. If they were just smart enough, the reasoning
goes, they too could invent asphalt, chainsaws, and
We also know that the transition didn't come because of
population pressures. Population has always been another big
puzzle: how did foraging humanity keep the population so low,
when they didn't have technologies? Historically, it's been
assumed they used infanticide, but that theory has been kind
of debunked. I believe that in addition to the various plants
they could use as contraceptives they were also much more in
tune with their bodies.
But back to the question: Why was it stable for so long, and then
why did it change so quickly? I think it was stable because it worked,
and I think it changed finally because for many millennia there was a
kind of slow slippage into division of labor. This happened so
slowly— almost imperceptibly— that people didn't see what was
happening, or what they were in danger of losing. The
alienation brought about by division of labor— alienation from
each other, from the natural world, from their bodies— then
reached some sort of critical mass, giving rise to its apotheosis
in what we've come to know as civilization. As to how
civilization itself took hold, I think Freud nailed that one when
he said that "civilization is something which was imposed on a
resisting majority by a minority which understood how to
obtain possession of the means of power and coercion."
That's what we see happening today, and there's no reason to
believe it was any different in the first place.
Running on Emptiness
DJ: What's wrong with division of labor?
JZ: That depends on what you want out of life. If your
primary goal is mass production, nothing at all. It's central to
our way of life. Each person performs as a tiny cog in this big
machine. If, on the other hand, your primary goal is relative
wholeness, egalitarianism, autonomy, or an intact world, there's
quite a lot wrong with it.
dj : I don't understand.
JZ: Division of labor is generally seen, when even noticed at all, as a
banality, a "given" of modern life. All we see around us would be
completely impossible without this cornerstone of production. But
that's the point. Undoing all this mess will mean undoing division of labor.
I think that at base a person is not complete or free insofar as
that person's life and the whole surrounding setup depends on
his or her being just some aspect of a process, some fraction of
it. A divided life mirrors the basic divisions in society and it all
starts there. Hierarchy and alienation start there, for example.
I don't think anyone would deny the effective control that
specialists or experts have in the contemporary world. And I
don't think anyone would argue that control isn't increasing with
DJ: Such as in food production. I recently read, that one out of every
ten dollars Americans spend on food goes to RJR Nabisco. Four meat
packers control ninety percent of meat processing. Eight corporations
control half of the poultry industry. Ninety percent of all agri chemical
and feed-grain industries are controlled by two percent of the corpora-
tions involved. And how many of us know how to raise our own food?
JZ : Exactly. And it's not just food. It wasn't that long ago you could
make your own radio set. People used to do that all the time. Even
ten years ago you could still work on your car. That is becoming
increasingly difficult. So the world becomes more and more
hostage to people with these specialized skills, and on the people
who control specialized technologies. When you have to rely on
others, when you don't have the skills to do what's needed in a
general sense, you are diminished.
Enemy of the state
DJ: But humans are social animals. Isn't it necessary for us to
rely on each other?
JZ : I don't want to make it seem like my model is to turn
people into monads with no connection to others. Quite the
opposite. But it's important to understand the difference
between the interdependence of a functioning community, and
a form of dependence that comes from relying on others who
have specialized skills you don't. They now have power over
you. Whether they are "benevolent" in its use is really beside
DJ: This reminds me of something the Russian Anarchist
Kropotkin wrote about revolution, that the question taking
precedence over all others is that of bread. This is because scarcity
of food is the strongest weapon with counterrevolutionary
forces: by withholding food or creating a blockade, those in
power can force people back into compliance. JZ : In addition
to the direct control by those who have specialized skills, there
is a lot of mystification of those skills. Part of the ideology of
modern society is that without it, you'd be completely lost, you
wouldn't know how to do the simplest thing. Well, humans
have been feeding themselves for the past couple of million
years, and doing it a lot more successfully and efficiently than we
do now. The global food system is insane. It's amazingly
inhumane and inefficient. We waste the world with pesticides,
herbicides, the effects of fossil fuels to transport and store
foods, and so on, and literally billions of people go their entire
lives without ever having enough to eat. But few things are simpler
than growing or gathering your own food.
DJ: Last year I interviewed a member of the Tupac Amaru
Revolutionary Movement, the group that took over the Japanese
Ambassador's house in Peru. I asked him what his group
wanted for his country. He replied, "We want to grow and
distribute our own food. We already know how to do that, we
merely need to be allowed to do so." jz: Exactly.
DJ: How much division of labor do you believe we should
jettison? JZ : I think the appropriate question is, "How much
wholeness for ourselves and the planet do we want?"
Running On Emptiness
DJ: You mentioned earlier you see a relationship between time and
JZ: Two things that come to mind. The first is that time is an inven-
tion, a cultural artifact, a formation of culture. It has no existence
outside of culture. The second is that time is a pretty exact measure of
alienation. And I believe that the present informs the past, or rather
gives directions to looking at the origins of modern alienation.
D.T: How so?
JZ: Let's start at the present. Time has never been as palpable, as
material, as it is now. It's never existed as a reification with so much
presence. Everything in our lives is measured and ruled by time.
D.T: Even dreams, it occurs to me, as we force them to conform to a
workaday world of alarm clocks and schedules.
JZ: It's really amazing when you think that it wasn't that long ago
that time wasn't so disembodied, so abstract.
DJ: But wait a second. Isn't the tick, tick, tick of a clock about as tan-
gible as you can get?
JZ: It becomes concrete. That's what reification means, when a concept
is treated as a thing, even when it isn't really a thing, but just a concept. A
second is nothing, and to grant it separate existence is counter to our
experience of living. I really like what Levy-Bruhl wrote about this:
"Our idea of time seems to be a natural attribute of the human mind.
But that is a delusion. Such an idea scarcely exists where primitive
mentality is concerned. "
DJ: Which means....
JZ: Most simply, that they live in the present, as we all do when we're
having fun. It has been said that the Mbuti of southern Africa believe
that "by a correct fulfillment of the present, the past and the future
will take care of themselves. "
DJ: What a concept!
JZ: Of the North American Pawnee it was said that life has a rhythm
but not a progression. Primitive peoples generally have no interest in
Enemy of the State
birthdays or measuring their ages. As for the future, they have
little desire to control what does not yet exist, just as they
have little desire to control nature. That moment-by-moment
joining with the flux and flow of the natural world of course
doesn't preclude an awareness of the seasons, but this in no
way constitutes an alienated time consciousness that robs them
of the present.
What I'm talking about is really hard for us to wrap our
minds around, because the notion of time has been so deeply
inculcated that it's sometimes hard to imagine it not existing.
dj: You're not talking about just not measuring seconds....
jz : I'm talking about time not existing. Time, as an abstract
continuing "thread" that unravels in an endless progression that
links all events together while remaining independent of them.
That doesn't exist. Sequence exists. Rhythm exists. But not time.
Part of this has to do with the notion of mass production and
division of labor. Tick, tick, tick, as you said. Identical seconds.
Identical people. Identical chores repeated endlessly. Well, no two
occurrences are identical, and if you are living in a stream of
inner and outer experience that constantly brings clusters of new
events, each moment is quantitatively and qualitatively different
than the moment before. The notion of time simply disappears.
dj: I'm still confused.
JZ: You might try this: if events are always novel, then not
only would routine be impossible, but the notion of time
would be meaningless.
dj: And the opposite would be true as well.
jz: Exactly. Only with the imposition of time can we begin to
impose routine. Freud was really clear on this. He repeatedly
pointed out that in order for civilization— with alienation at its
core— to take place, it first had to break the early hold of
timeless and non-productive gratification.
This happened, I believe, in two stages. First the rise of agriculture
magnified the importance of time, and specifically reified cyclical time,
with its periods of intense labor associated with sowing or reaping, and
with the surplus of the harvest going to support those who ran the cal-
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endars: the priests. This was true of the Babylonians, and
of the Mayans. In the West, the notion of cyclical time, which
still maintained at least a bow toward the natural world with its
connection to the rhythms of the days and seasons, gave way to
linear time. This began with the rise of civilization, and really took
hold near the start of the Christian era. And of course once
you have linear time, you have history, then progress, then an
idolatry of the future that sacrifices species, languages, cultures,
and now quite possibly the entire natural world on the altar of
some future. Once this was at least the altar of a Utopian future,
but we don't even have that to believe in anymore. The same
thing happens in our personal lives, as we give up living in the
moment in exchange for the hope of being able to live in the
moment at some point in the future, perhaps after we retire, or
maybe even after we die and go to heaven. This otherworldly
emphasis on heaven, too, emerges from the unpleasantness of
living in linear time.
DJ: It seems to me that linear time not only leads to habitat
degradation, but also springs from it. If everything is in
reasonable balance, you are still on cyclical time, or as you
mention, not on time at all, but as soon as you begin degrading
your habitat such that there are perceptible changes, you've
entered historical time. When I was young, there were many frogs.
Now there are fewer. There were many songbirds. Now there are
fewer. That's linear time. I can count the passage of years by
counting clearcuts. Historical time will only cease once the last
vestiges of our civilization cease to be, once the last steel beams
of the last skyscrapers rust into dust, and once this current
spasm of extinctions abates, and once again those who remain
can enter a rhythm, a peace. JZ: Yes.
Linear time then transformed itself with the introduction of
the clock into mechanical time. All connection to the natural
world or to the present was lost, subsumed to the tyranny of the
machine and of production. The Church was central to this
endeavor. The Benedictines, who ruled 40,000 monasteries at
their height in the Middle Ages, helped to yoke human
endeavor to the regular, collective beat and rhythm of the
machine by forcing people to work "on the clock."
The fourteenth century saw the first public clocks, and also
the division of hours into minutes and minutes into seconds. The
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of time were now as fully interchangeable as the standardized parts
and work processes necessary for capitalism.
At every step of the way this subservience to time has
been met with resistance. For example, in early fighting in
France's July Revolution of 1830, all across Paris people began
to spontaneously shoot at public clocks. In the 1960s, many
people, including me, quit wearing watches.
DJ: For a while in my twenties, : asked visitors to take off their
watches as they entered my home.
JZ: Even today children must be broken of their resistance
to time. This was one of the primary reasons for the imposition
of this country's mandatory school system on a largely unwilling
public. School teaches you to be at a certain place at a
certain time, and prepares you for life in a factory. It calibrates
you to the system. Raoul Vaneigem has a wonderful quote
about this: "The child's days escape adult time; their time is
swollen by subjectivity, passion, dreams haunted by reality.
Outside, the educators look on, waiting, watch in hand, till the
child joins and fits the cycle of the hours."
Time is not only important sociologically and ecologically, but
personally. If I can share another quote, it would be Wittgenstein's:
"Only a man who lives not in time but in the present is happy."
DJ: You mentioned also that number alienates....
JZ: You count objects. You don't count subjects. When
members of a large family sit down to dinner, they know
immediately without counting whether someone is missing
without counting. Counting only becomes necessary when you
have homogenized things.
Not all peoples use systems of numbers. The Yanomami, for
example, do not count past two. Obviously they are not
stupid. But just as obviously, they have a different relationship
with the natural world.
The first number system was almost undoubtedly used to
measure and control domesticated flock or herd animals, as wild
creatures became products to be harvested. We next see
mathematics being used in Sumer about 5000 years ago to
facilitate business. Later, Euclid developed his geometry, literally
meaning "land measuring," explicitly
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to measure fields for reasons of ownership, taxation, and slave
labor. Today the same imperative drives science, only now it is
the entire universe we are trying to measure and enslave. Once
again, this isn't obscure Anarchist theory. Descartes himself,
considered by many to be the father of modern science,
declared that the aim of science is "to make us as masters and
possessors of nature." He also declared the universe a giant
clockwork, tying these two forms of domination— numbers and
time— back neatly together.
DJ: I've read that Nazi death camps often had quotas to fill as
to how many people they were to kill each day. Today National
Forests have deforestation quotas, as they must "produce" a
certain number of board feet. It's long been clear to me that
it's easier to kill a number than an individual, whether we are
talking about boxcars of untermenschen, millions of board feet
of timber, or tons of fish. Where does this leave us?
JZ : In a dying world. Alienated.
JZ : Marx defined alienation as being separated from the means
of production. Instead of producing things to use, we are used
by the system. I would take it a step further and say that to me it
means estranged from our own experiences, dislodged from a
natural mode of being. The more technicized and artificial the
world becomes, and as the natural world is evacuated, there's
an obvious sense of being alienated from a natural
To refer again to a pre-domesticated state, I think people
once were in touch with themselves as organisms in ways we can't
even comprehend. On the level of the senses, there are
credible accounts of San hearing a single-engine plane seventy
miles away, and seeing four of the moons of Jupiter with the
unaided eye. And this connection of course extended to those
around them: Laurens Van der Post stated that the San
seemed to know what it actually felt like to be an elephant, a
lion, an antelope, and so on. This connection was then
reciprocated. There are scores if not hundreds of accounts by early
European explorers describing the lack of fear shown by wild
animals toward humans.
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DJ: Just last year I came across an account by the eighteenth-century
explorer Samual Hearne, the first white man to explore northern Canada.
He described Indian children playing with wolf pups. The children would
paint the pups' faces with vermilion or red ochre, and when they were
done playing with them return them unhurt to the den. Neither the
pups nor the pups' parents seemed to mind at all. JZ: Now we gun them
down from airplanes. That's progress for you.
DJ: More broadly, what has progress meant in practice?
JZ: Progress has meant the looming specter of the complete dehu-
manization of the individual and the catastrophe of ecological collapse. I
think there are fewer people who believe in it now than ever, but probably
there are still many who perceive it as inevitable. We're certainly
conditioned on all sides to accept that, and we're held hostage to it, too.
The idea now is to have everybody dependent on technology in an
increasingly immiserated sense. In terms of human health, it means
increasing dependence on technologies, but what we're supposed to forget
is that the technologies created these problems in the first place. Not just
cancers caused by chemicals. Nearly all diseases are diseases either of
civilization, alienation, or gross habitat destruction.
DJ: I have Crohn's Disease, which is virtually unheard of in nonin-
dustrialized nations, only becoming common as these nations industri-
alize. In all literal truth industrial civilization is eating away at my guts.
JZ: I think people are really starting to understand how hollow the progress
myth has been. Maybe that's too sanguine. But the fruits of it are too
hard to miss. In fact the system doesn't talk so much about progress
DJ: What new word has replaced it?
JZ: Inertia. This is it. Deal with it, or else get screwed. You don't hear so
much now about the American Dream, or the glorious new tomorrow.
Now it's a global race for the bottom as transnationals compete to see
which can most exploit workers, most degrade the environment.
That competition thing works on the personal level, too. If you don't
plug into computers you won't get a job. That's progress.
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DJ: Where does that leave us?
JZ: I'm optimistic, because never before has our whole lifestyle
been revealed as much for what it is.
DJ: Having seen it, what is there to do?
JZ: The first thing is to question it, to make certain that part
of the discourse of society— if not all of it— deals with these life
and death issues, instead of the avoidance and denial that
characterizes so much of what passes for discourse. And I
believe, once again, that this denial can't hold up much longer,
because there's such a jarring contrast between reality and
what is said about reality. Especially in this country, I would
Maybe, and this is the nightmare scenario, that contrast can go
on forever. The Unabomber Manifesto posits that
possibility: people Could just be so conditioned that they won't
even notice there's no natural world anymore, no freedom, no
fulfillment, no nothing. You just take your Prozac everyday, limp
along dyspeptic and neurotic, and figure that's all there is.
But the way to break through that, the way to break the
monopoly of lies, is simply to break the monopoly of lies, and
bring out the old emperor has no clothes bit in its reality, its
fullness, in how awful it really is, and what is at stake. To
contrast what is possible— what has been, and what could again
someday be— with how miserable the present is and what the
immediate future will bring.
Clearly if we don't break the monopoly of lies, in a few
decades there won't be much left to fight for. Especially when
the acceleration of environmental degradation and personal
So it's doubly crucial that dialog includes these off-limits
subjects of how bad things really are. We need to redefine the
acceptable discourse of this society. To refer to the Unabomber
again, he decided he had to kill people to bring up this
suppressed point of view. And he forced them to publish it. The
point here is not whether he was justified or not, but merely to
reveal the level of denial. This denial is not going to be changed
by little reforms, and the planet is not going to be saved by
recycling. To think it will is just silly. Or no, it's not silly, it's
criminal. We have to face what's going on. Once we've faced
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then we can together figure out how to change it, how to completely
You asked, "What's progress?" Take a look.
We need to talk about alienation. That's the number one
problem. Two days ago I read in the paper that the young have
never smoked as much as they do now. All the anti-smoking
programs in the world aren't going to overcome the alienation at
the root of this and other addictions. Take the war on drugs. All
the billboards and flashy videos and all that shit aren't going to
help one bit, because we aren't doing anything about the
conditions that produce it. So we're in this never-never land
where at least some people think if you produce some hip stuff
about smoking or dope you can change something. But it's
more of the avoidance and denial. It's more of the problem.
What is the system that generates these malignant
things? Let's talk about that, even though it's forbidden. Still
it's forbidden to talk about the fundamental nature of the
global system. Before we jump to what are the specific
answers, the very first thing, the essential thing is just to face
it as a question, to pose it as a question, to talk about it as a
question. Otherwise it's pointless to talk about the tactics.
There's a debate going on in Earth First! now about the
question of violence versus nonviolence. But I think even Earth
First! is missing the point. I think people get so exercised about
tactics because they haven't faced the more fundamental
questions: what are we really trying to do? What's the
overview? What's our grasp on things? What is the meaning of
our work? Tactics arise organically in large part from your
starting position. But if you don't want to talk about where you
are, your talk of tactics is meaningless.
The place to start is by asking questions like: how can we make a
radical break? Is what we're doing contributing to a radical break? Do
we even want a radical break? Do we want to have a few more liberals,
who will chop down a few fewer trees? Is that all we want?
DJ: I just wrote an article for Earth First! surrounding that
same question: when is violence appropriate? My belief also is
that this isn't the most basic question. The question I would
ask is: to what depth do we feel the destruction in our bodies?
I have on my wall a news clipping headlined "Mother bear charges
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trains." I keep it because if we're able to perceive the situation
deeply enough in our bodies— like the mother grizzly who
charges the train that killed her sons— we will know precisely
what to do. She didn't go into theoretical discussions of right and
wrong; her response was embodied.
JZ: And it's the same for people who hate their jobs. If they
would just reenter their bodies, they would know what they
need to do.
DJ: I read accounts of the lives some people have— for example,
miners who are underground from dawn to dusk day after
day— and I wonder how they survive. So far as we know, we
only get one life, and what the hell are you gonna do
spending it all breaking your back? JZ: Or causing others to
break their backs. I was having a discussion about technological
society with a few friends, and some of them were saying, "Well,
we've got to have phones. We can't do away with them." And
another friend responded, "Are you going to go down in the
mines? Are you going to do that?" Because our whole lifestyle is
predicated on someone having to slave his or her life away, or
rather millions and millions of someones.
I wouldn't go down there unless you put a gun to my head. And of
course some people do have guns to their heads, because they don't
have as much flexibility as you or I do so far as surviving. But those of
us who don't have guns to our heads need to be aware of the bargains
we make in order to live the way we do.
DJ: Let's talk more about technology. Isn't technology just driven by
JZ: You hear people say this all the time: "You can't put the
genie back in the bottle"; "You're asking people to forget."
Stuff like that. But that's just another attempt to naturalize
the craziness. And it's a variant of that same old racist
intelligence argument. Because the Hopi didn't invent
backhoes, they must not be curious. Sure, people are naturally
curious. But about what? Did you or I aspire to create the neutron
bomb? Of course not. That's crazy. Why would people want to
do that in the first place? They don't. But the fact that I don't
want to create a neutron bomb doesn't mean I'm not curious.
Curiosity is not value free. Certain types of curiosity arise from
certain types of
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mindsets, and our own "curiosity" follows the logic of alienation, not
simple wonder, not learning something to become a better person. Our
"curiosity," taken as a whole, leads us in the direction of further
domination. How could it do any other?
DJ: We may try to make better mousetraps — more efficient ways to
kill small rodents — but I don't see us working real hard to stop rape,
child abuse, or global warming. Strange the things we apply this much-
vaunted curiosity to.
Also, I think about friends. I want to learn about them so
we can be better friends, not so I can utilize them more
efficiently. That is true for humans and nonhumans alike.
JZ: We gotta hope this thing collapses.
DJ: Speaking of collapse, how do you see the future playing
out? JZ: I was talking to a friend about it this afternoon,
and he was giving reasons why there isn't going to be a good
outcome, or even an opening toward a good outcome. I couldn't
say he was wrong, but as I mentioned before, I'm kind of
betting that the demonstrable impoverishment on every level
goads people into the kind of questioning we're talking about,
and toward mustering the will to confront it. Perhaps now
we're in the dark before the dawn. I remember when Marcuse
wrote One Dimensional Man. It came out in about 1964, and
he was saying that humans are so manipulated in modern
consumerist society that there really can be no hope for
change. And then within a couple of years things got pretty
interesting, people woke up from the '50s to create the
movements of the '60s. I believe had he written this book a
little later it would have been much more positive.
Perhaps the '60s helped shape my own optimism. I was at
the almost perfect age. I was at Stanford, in college, and then I
moved to Haight-Ashbury, and Berkeley was across the Bay. I got
into some interesting situations just because I was in the right
place at the right time. I agree with people who say the '60s
didn't even scratch the surface, but you have to admit there was
something going on. And you could get a glimpse, a sense of
possibility, a sense of hope, that if things kept going, there was a
chance of us finding a different path.
They didn't, but I still carry that possibility, and it warms me, even
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though thirty years later things are frozen, and awful.
Sometimes I'm amazed that younger people can do anything, or
have any hope, because I'm not sure they've seen any challenge that
has succeeded even partially.
DJ: Certainly none coming from the environmental movement.
JZ: I have that amazing boost in my life and my psyche that
younger people don't. And I am so very impressed at the
capacity for hope among the young.
DJ: Some say that the '60s were the last big burst, the last
gasp, and from then on it's been downhill.
JZ: I sometimes think of it that way, like it was the Big Bang, and
everything's been cooling ever since. Or like an earthquake,
followed by aftershocks. I was in San Francisco in '76 and '77
during the punk explosion, and that was very exciting, but there
was no sense this was going to kickstart a new round of
change. We hoped so, but didn't think so.
But I think we're coming to a big one, something much
bigger than the '60s. Not only because we have to, if we are to
survive, but also because back then we had a tremendously high
level of illusion. Much of our idealism was misplaced, and we
believed it wouldn't take that much to effect significant change.
We had a certainly unwarranted faith in institutions, and we
didn't think things through far enough. We weren't grounded
enough, tied tightly enough to reality. Now if that
revolutionary energy comes back it's going to be far more
total. DJ: I used to teach at Eastern Washington University,
and I would ask my students if we live in a democracy. They
wouldn't bother to answer, but would just laugh. I would ask if
the government cares more for the rights of corporations or
individuals. Same response. That filled me with hope.
JZ: I first really saw that when I moved back to Oregon from
California in 1981. It was the day Reagan was shot. It was a
total contrast to the killing of Kennedy. In 1963 people cried
and mourned. It was a trauma. But in 1981 that wasn't the case.
I had delivered a car to Eugene, and then had to take a bus to
my parents' home. As I walked into the bus station, there were a
bunch of people huddled around this
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little portable tv set. It was coverage of the assassination
attempt. They didn't know yet if Reagan was dead. There
had been some sort of event, and the people waiting for the
bus were primarily students from Oregon State, which is, as I
suspect is the case for Eastern Washington, a conservative
school. Anyway, everyone was laughing and chuckling and
carrying on. They were scathing. I just listened the whole way,
and really noticed the total lack of faith in the government. So
this time when things blow, they're going to blow for real.
D J: In Elements of Refusal you go into great detail about how in the
early part of this century, there was a tremendous amount of revolu-
tionary energy in the air, and that in many ways World War I was an
explicit attempt to destroy that energy through the carnage of state-
]Z: War, of course, always requires a good excuse, especially
when the state's real enemies are, more clearly than usual, its
own citizenry. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand well-suited
the needs of a dying regime. But by no means did it cause the
war. First, the assassination was not atypical. Many European
heads of state or upper level administrators were killed in the
years just previous. Next, the immediate reaction all through
Europe to the news of the assassination was indifference. The
people took little notice, and the stock market didn't really
respond at all.
We've also been told that the war came because an intricate
series of treaties guaranteed that any localized conflict would
quickly spread. That's nonsense. After the assassination Austria-
Hungary delivered an ultimatum to Serbia. But Serbia
capitulated! There was no reason for war! Nonetheless,
Austria-Hungary needed a war, and a big one, so war was
declared anyway. And why would Russia defend an already-
capitulated Serbia? Because it, too, needed a war to stave off its
own imminent collapse.
The real reason for the war, I believe, had to do with the
tremendous unrest in all of Europe. 1913 and 1914 had seen
immense strikes all across Russia. Austria-Hungary was on the
verge of civil war. Revolutionary movements and radical unions
were on the ascent in the United States, Germany, France, Italy,
England. Even George V acknowledged this when he said in the
summer of 1914, just before
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the war, "The cry of civil war is on the lips of the most responsible
and sober-minded of my people." Things had to explode.
But how would things explode, and at whom would this
explosion be directed? What better way to destroy hope than
through a long and pointless war? And it worked. Most
unions and left-wing parties backed the war, and those that
didn't— like the Wobblies here in the US— the state simply
destroyed. After the war not many people had the heart
anymore to pursue revolution, and those who did, like Mus-
solini or the Bolsheviks, were not true revolutionaries in terms of
overturning the social order, but instead opportunists who
turned the power vacuums to their own advantage.
DJ: Does that parallel make you think there will be another
big war? JZ: Sure, but this one can only last 24 hours,
because people won't support it any longer than that....
DJ: Where do you think all this energy— it seems odd to call
alienation energy— is going to go?
JZ: Is it piling up? I don't know. I definitely know we aren't
the happy mindless consumers we're supposed to be. Or even
if we believe we are, our bodies know better. I recently wrote
a short review of the new book by Ellen Showalter, called
Hysterias. In this she talks about what she calls six different
hysterias of the '90s: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Gulf War
Syndrome, recovered memory, satanic cults, and so on.
Some people are very offended because it sounds like she's
saying it's all in your head.
DJ: Even her choice of title is very revealing in that manner.
Freud chose the term hysteria to describe his patients'
descriptions of childhood sexual abuse at the hands and genitals
of their fathers. At first he believed these accounts, and began to
uncover a tremendous epidemic of incest, an epidemic that
continues unabated to this day. But when he began to go
public with these findings, they were so ill-received that he
found himself quickly backing away, and created an entire
philosophy around his denial of this evidence. To allow himself
to disbelieve these accounts, he called the women hysterical.
JZ: I hear what you're saying, and that's a very good point.
Where I'm taking this, however, is in a slightly different direction.
It seems to me.
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and I have to say the book is very undeveloped, that the point
of her book is that we are all so miserable, and so deeply in
denial, that these crises will keep arising, whether or not they
have physical geneses: once each "hysteria" passes by,
another will arise. And you'll never find any cures. You might
say that in the case of Gulf War Syndrome this takes the
government off the hook by suggesting the government
didn't poison or irradiate American troops. But it seems to me
more radical to say that not only may the government have
poisoned Americans— which it's done so many times as to
almost be banal— but that no matter what you are doing or
where you live, life now is so crippling, alienated, bizarre, and
fucked as to spawn all these potentially psychogenic problems. Of
course we all know that's the case, with little kids mowing each
other down in school— four cases of it in four months— and all
sorts of other outrages unimaginable even ten years ago. And
now they're commonplace. Expected even. What the hell
does that say about our way of living? No longer can anyone get
away with particularizing any of these problems. It's all just so
fundamentally rotten and pathological that it indicts the whole
Sure the government is capable of and willing to poison its
own citizens. Happens all the time. But it's even worse....
DJ: No matter how you look at it, it's damning. If the
government didn't poison the soldiers in this case, what's the
psychogenic cause of the syndrome? And if it did, which I
believe is the case, what the hell does that mean? What does
it mean that our own "elected" government would poison us?
This leads to a difficulty I have with this whole discussion. It's
something I've not yet answered in my own work. Not only do
we have to remember or relearn how to live sustainably, but we
have to figure out how to deal with those forces that right now
are destroying all those who do live sustainably. It's all very
good for us to talk about living sanely and without domination,
but we all know what would happen if we in our communities
developed sustainable ways to live, and members of the
dominant culture wanted our resources. We and our
community would be destroyed, and our resources would be
JZ: That's just a reality. We'd like to think that violence isn't
necessary in response, but I'm not sure if that's the case.
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Now, you can say that if upheavals are large enough,
actually there isn't very much violence.
DJ: Tell me more.
JZ: The first example that comes to mind is the May 1968
uprising in France, in which ten million people, in a wildcat strike,
just began to occupy their workplaces. Astronomers, factory
workers, you name it. Students provided the trigger, but after
that all these grievances came out in a rush. The police and the
army were completely useless to the state, because the whole
country was involved. For a time they considered sending in
NATO. Unfortunately, the uprising didn't last very long before it
was brought under control, mainly by the leftists and unions
who wanted to co-opt the revolutionary energy for their reformist
demands. But for a time the people really had control of the entire
country. And it was totally nonviolent. Violence wasn't necessary.
DJ: But the uprising created no long-term change, did it?
JZ: No. But it did expose how really fragile are the powers of
coercion that the state has. In that kind of mass uprising the
state is helpless.
We saw that again in the collapse of state capitalism in the
USSR and the East Block. There was not much violence. It just
all fell apart. I'm not saying that's going to happen, nor am I
saying that collapse led to any sort of radical shift, but it does
point out there have been bloodless upheavals in history.
DJ: Maybe one of the things that can help us through this is
the natural world. The system is already beginning to collapse,
and I think one of the things we can do is try to make sure that
grizzly bear and salmon stay alive through the crash. Another
thing we can do is attempt to articulate these alternatives.
JZ: Which is what I believe we are trying to do here.
DJ: I want to come back to the question of what one does with the
knowledge that those in power have tanks and guns and
airplanes. This seems to me one of the fundamental questions
of our time, if not the fundamental question. How does one
respond sanely and effectively
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to outrageously destructive behavior? How does a fundamentally
peaceful person respond to violence? How do you make peace
with the fact that in order to end coercion, you may have to
coerce? You may have to coerce the coercers.
JZ: That is a tough one. You read the journals of Columbus—
and there are hundreds of examples of this type of thing—
where the peaceful indigenous people greeted the invaders
with open arms. The smart thing to have done, I suppose,
would have been to cut the throats of the invaders. I don't
think many people would argue with that, or if they would,
they have probably not been the subject of violence in their
own person, their own family, their own community. But the
question arises, among these peaceful people, where would the
imperative to cut the invaders' throats have come from? Not
only the knowledge of what was going to happen to them, but
also the moral knowledge to commit that violence. It was not
DJ: Sherman Alexie tells this great story about how he
wishes he would have been alive when Columbus landed. He
proceeds through all manner of violence he would have done
to Columbus and his troops, then stops and says, "No, we
couldn't have done that. That is not who we are."
JZ: Maybe you just have to say that the second time around it
isn't going to be that way. We didn't make this culture. We
didn't turn the world into the battleground and cemetery it has
become. We didn't turn human relations into the parody they
have become. But now it is our responsibility to overcome what
our culture has created. Maybe you could say that now we
must be what we must be to overcome it. Adorno talks about
that, about overcoming alienation with alienation. How does
that work? I don't know, but I think about it. Anybody who
cares about the continuation of life on the planet really has to,
at this point. To take it to the most personal level, could you
kill somebody, if you knew that to do so would save other lives?
DJ: Lately I've been reading a lot about German resistance to
Hitler, and I have been struck by the fact that despite
knowing Hitler had to be removed before a "decent"
government could be installed, they spent more time creating
paper versions of this theoretical government
Running On Emptiness
than attempting to remove him from power. It wasn't a lack of courage
that caused this blindness but rather a misguided sense of morals. Karl
Goerdeler, for instance, though tireless in attempting to create this new
government, staunchly opposed assassinating Hitler, believing that if
only the two could sit face to face Hitler might relent. How do you
wrap your mind around that, and how do you personalize it,
as you said? JZ: This ties back to the Showalter book. Maybe
these "hysterias," if that is what they are, are the result of our
turning anger inward instead of turning it against the system.
We also know what happens to those who turn violent against
the system, even if their violence is justified. The ones I know
are either dead or in prison. I have a friend in prison who was
once a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army. I once
asked what made him cross the line into violence, and he said, "I
just had to do it. It was absolutely unavoidable."
DJ: I asked the Tupacamarista what caused him to cross that
line, and he said it was seeing the futility of civil resistance, and
also seeing friends and fellow nonviolent activists murdered by
state police. JZ: I've thought a lot about how I can best
serve— and I realize that at least part of this answer is based on
class privilege, on a wider set of options being open to me than
to many others— but for right now I'm OK with my form of
resistance, which is through cultural critique. For me, words
are a better weapon to bring down the system than a gun
would be. This is to say nothing of anybody else's choice of
weapon, only my own. So that's why I do what I do. But my
words are nothing but a weapon.
DJ: Obviously the same is true for me. But even having made
that decision for now, I still revisit the question. Every morning
when I awake, for example, I ask myself whether I should write
or blow up a dam. I tell myself I should keep writing, though
I'm not sure that's right, because it's neither a lack of words nor
activism that's killing salmon here in the Northwest, but the
presence of dams. Anyone who knows anything about salmon
knows the dams must go. Anyone who knows anything about
politics knows the dams will stay. Scientists study, politicians and
business people lie and delay, bureaucrats hold sham public input
meetings, activists write letters and press releases, I
Enemy of the State
write books, and still the salmon die. It's a cozy relationship
for all of us but the salmon.
Or to take another example, I recently read that Gandhi
wrote a letter to Hitler appealing to his conscience, and was
amazed that it didn't work.
JZ: Gandhi's failure doesn't mean words must always fail. He was
obviously directing his words at the wrong place. Had he
spoken more radical and effective words to his fellow Indians,
things might be different there now.
DJ: Right! Or if he was going to get involved in Germany, he
should have written not to Hitler, who was obviously a lost cause,
but instead perhaps an open letter to members of the
resistance, letting them know they were not alone.
DJ: But the question of violence is even more complex than
we've made it so far. I know also we kill by inaction as surely
by action. I came to that understanding a year ago. I had a goose
who was killing chickens, and because I don't like to kill I didn't
kill him. Finally he killed one too many, and so I killed him and
ate him for dinner. Here's the point: that evening I was noticing
my existential depression at having ended a life, when a friend
pointed out that I was responsible that day not just for one
death, but for many more. I was responsible as well for the
chickens I allowed him to kill because I myself was not willing to
JZ: I recently saw a quote by Exene Cervenkova, the lead
singer in the band X, in which she said, "I've killed way more
people than Kaczynski, because I've been paying a lot of taxes in
the last fifteen years, and he hasn't." I was really struck by what
an effective point that is. It reminds us we're all implicated.
DJ: Let's go back to the notion of anti-authoritarianism. Can
there be leaders without domination?
JZ: I think persuasion isn't domination, as long as it lsrit manipula-
tive, and as long as it's transparent. That's exactly how the Anarchist troops
in the Spanish Civil War were led. Decisions were largely made
Kunning un trnpniness
by discussion, and once decisions were made then
whomever was going to lead the troops decided how it was to be
done. He was given authority on a case by case basis. This
worked well for a time, but then as happens so often, so-called
allies— in this case the Communist party and the Soviet Union,
along with other conservative pressures in Spain— weeded out
the anti-authoritarianism. The Anarchist units ended up
becoming regular units in the army, and the passion for the
revolution was sacrificed.
This whole question of leadership, by the way, is the reason I
stopped being an organizer. For a time I was in this sort of do-
it-yourself union in San Francisco. It was opposed to all of the
corrupt bureaucratic Organized Labor unions, and it was very
Anarchist, though we didn't use that term. Our general tactic
was to help everybody with all of their issues, all of their
grievances, defend everything, dispute everything. We were
following a theory prevalent in the '60s called "The Long March
Through the Institutions," which held that the only way to
topple the system is from within. I no longer believe that, of
course. But the thing that finally dawned on me was that I
wasn't doing the work for the right reason. I wasn't specifically
trying to help this person get her job back, or that person
change this policy— although I did help with these situations—
so much as I was using the work as an avenue to overturn the
institutions. I didn't say, "I'm doing this because I want to
destroy the system," nor did I say, "My perspective goes way
beyond this union," because I didn't think a lot of people
could relate to that. They just wanted their jobs back, or higher
wages, or whatever. And they came to me because I could help
with that. I eventually realized that this lack of transparency was
manipulative. So I had to stop.
That's why now I depend more on critique, because I
couldn't figure out how to not have a hidden agenda and still be
an effective organizer. I don't run into that problem as a writer.
No one is forced to read my stuff, and so we— the readers and I—
enjoy a nonhierarchical relationship.
DJ: So persuasion isn't domination?
JZ: Not at all. Not so long as it's honest.
D.T: What do you want from your work and your life?
tnemy or ine biane
JZ: I would like to see a face to face community, an intimate
existence, where relations are not based on power, and thus
not on division of labor. I would like to see an intact natural
world, and I would like to live as a fully human being. I would
like that for the people around me.
DJ: Once again, how do we get there from here?
JZ: I have no idea. It might be something as simple as
everybody just staying home from work. Fuck it. Withdraw
your energy. The system can't last without us. It needs to suck
our energy. If people stop responding to the system, it's doomed.
DJ: But if we stop responding, if we really decide not to go
along, aren't we doomed also, because the system will destroy
JZ: Right. It's not so easy. If it were that simple, people
would just stay home, because it's such a drag to go through
these miserable routines in an increasingly empty culture. But
a question we always have to keep in mind is this: we're
doomed, but in which way are we more doomed? I recently
gave a talk at the University of Oregon in which I spoke on a
lot of these topics. Near the end I said, "I know that a call
for this sort of overturning of the system sounds ridiculous,
but the only thing I can think of that's even more ridiculous
is to just let the system keep on going."
DJ: How do we know that all the alienation we see around us
will lead to breakdown and rejuvenation? Why can't it just lead to
more alienation? I know I've spent the last twenty years
working as hard as I can to understand all this and extricate
myself as much as I can from it. But I've no family to support.
I've no wage job. Alienation can lead to understanding, but it
can also lead to just passing on the damage to those around
JZ: It's a question of how reversible the damage is.
Sometimes— and I don't believe this is too much avoidance or
denial— sometimes in history things are reversed in a moment
when the physical world intrudes enough to knock us off
balance. Vaneigem refers to a lovely little thing that gives me
tremendous hope. The dogs in Pavlov's laboratory had been
conditioned for hundreds of hours. They were fully
Running On Emptiness
trained and domesticated. Then there was a flood in the basement. And
you know what happened? They forgot all of their training in the blink
of an eye. We should be able to do at least that well. I am staking
my life on it, and it is toward this end that I devote my work.
Julie Mayeda was present for and contributed to this
ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM :
PAINTING AS VISION AND CRITIQUE
Also known as Heroic Abstraction, the New York School, Gesture
Painting, and Action Painting, Abstract Expressionism was modernism's
last, great assault on the dominant culture, the finale for painting as
opposition or breakthrough.
Abstraction and expressive power had hitherto been considered
mutually exclusive, but by the end of 1947 a few artists had abandoned
all traces of figural representation, and a definite, if widely varying
tendency emerged. This paradoxical combination of elements found
potent resolution in works as diverse as the allover "drip" canvases of
Jackson Pollock, the black gestures of Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell,
and the extremely flat, open color-field paintings of Clyfford Still, Mark
Rothko, and especially Barnett Newman. All "so revolutionary," according
to critic Irving Sandler (1978), "that all links to the past seemed
In the late 1940s American art was dominated by a mediocre, aca-
demic style, which only occasionally went so far as to incorporate suit-
ably tamed aspects of no longer current European styles. Abstract
Expressionism was very definitely not about comfortable evocations of
beauty or harmony, and the radical break it represented was very distasteful
to many. The more traditional painter Ethel Schwabacher, in
Running on Emptiness
her Hungry for Light memoir (1993) recalls the antipathy she felt to
Pollock's "uneasiness" and "demolition quality"; characterizing his efforts
as "storm voltage in the wake of which comes wild destruction."
I find, particularly in his huge, signature-style paintings, a volcanic
energy in Pollock that seeks to blow away this sham life, that points toward
a Utopian renewal. People have been known to weep before the shimmering
color rectangles of Rothko at his best. It is clear that the AE painters
went all-out, united somehow in a common search for an absolute. As
Frank O'Hara (1959) observed about them, "In the state of spiritual
clarity there are no secrets. The effort to achieve such a state is
monumental and agonizing."
By 1950 or so, aided by sensationalist stories in Life magazine
and elsewhere, awareness of this New York School moved from the
art world to the general public. Not surprisingly, the conventional
image was that of young, probably talentless know-nothings
engaged in tantrums with oil paints. In fact, the arrival of abstract
expressionism was the culmination of long, arduous evolution. A
fair number of these painters were born within the two or three
years prior to 1905 and had been painting for decades, mastering
various styles and working through stages of formal development. It
was at the peak of their powers and maturity that a number of
artists, rather independently, achieved the AE breakthrough. When
asked by a reporter how long it had taken him to paint a large work,
Rothko replied (1961), "I am 57 years old and it took me all that
time to paint this picture."
Of course, a conformist media virtually guaranteed that the public
response would be largely one of shock and anger. Probably the only
surprise for the painters in question was the intensity of the hostility,
and its duration. And how many could have been ready for an art that
refused all fixed systems, ideologies, and pigeonholes — anything that might
deny expressive possibilities? David and Cecile Shapiro (1990) noted that
the new current was "programmatically divorced from anything in the
entire history of art East or West."
The AE attitude or orientation was captured, in its Utopian
aspect, in this line by critic Harold Rosenberg (1948): "The modern
painter is not inspired by anything visible, but only by something he
hasn't seen yet." In the estimation of Kim Levin (1986), "During the
1950s, New York artists produced some of the most difficult — and
violent — painting in the history of art. ..."
And yet this American vanguard painting made New York the
foremost source of aesthetic ideas and energies in the world, defini-
tively surpassing Paris in this regard. Perhaps more importantly, there
was an aspect of popular resonance — despite the orchestrated vilifica-
tion — with Abstract Expressionist intransigence and non-conformism.
In an era of mass-produced being and thinking, at least some fraction
of society was inspired by the Action Painters.
Europe, by the way, had its own versions of the new painting. The
work of the Cobra Group of 1948-1950, so named for its locations in
Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam, was similar in many respects
to what the intrepid Americans were up to. Equally dissatisfied with
lifeless abstraction and depthless Socialist Realism, the Cobras, albeit
briefly, were blazing new paths. Likewise, the Tachist movement in France
had ties to New York and a defiant spirit of innovation and profound
challenge; to quote Tachist painter Georges Mathieu (1958), "The
question is posed: it does more than put the basis of Western civ-
ilization at stake ..."
In the U.S. 1950 saw production beginning in the areas of hydro-
gen bombs and Miltown tranquilizers, as Cold War repression and
consumerist emptiness began to define post-World War II society. In
this depersonalized age the Abstract Expressionists put forth their des-
perate assertions in favor of spontaneity, freedom, and discovery of self
and context. It was their romantic anti-capitalist hope, complete with
weaknesses and contradictions, that the values embodied in their art
could supersede the artistic and transform society. Behind the energy of
the immediate impulse was a rigorous way of life demanding total
dedication. Pollock summed it up best, simply, when he said, "Painting
is my whole life." Hard to imagine a starker contrast to the cowardly
cynicism of today's postmodern art-world cadaver.
For a radical art whose purpose was to venture into the unknown,
to attempt painting as the yet indefinable, key components were risk,
passion and adventure. For such intensity of purpose against such great
odds, only extremists need apply. Little wonder that even before 1950
Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, and David Smith, leading AE sculptor,
had already suffered serious depression or nervous collapses.
Running on Emptiness
Arshile Gorky had hanged himself in 1948; Pollock, following years of
torturous alcoholism, killed himself in a drunken car crash in 1956;
Franz Kline drank himself to death in 1962; Smith died in a car crash
in 1965, and Rothko slashed his arms and died in his studio in 1970.
In fact, alcoholism, if not madness, haunted most of the twenty or so
most visible New York painters of this movement. April Kingsley (1 992)
judged that "Not since the Renaissance has there been a group of
artists whose real lives have been so fascinating." Fascinating may be too
gentle a word.
Malcolm Lowry once said, "The real cause of alcoholism is the
complete baffling sterility of existence as sold to you." The Abstract
Expressionists were acutely aware of that sterility and believed that art
should reveal and challenge the barrenness and oppression of modern
capitalist society. Sam Francis (1959) rendered this with a poetic preci-
sion: "What we want is to make something that fills utterly the sight
and can't be used to make life only bearable."
A large number of the Action painters had radical credentials.
Pollock, Newman, Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Ad Reinhardt,
among others, made persistently anti-nationalist and anti-capitalist
statements. David and Cecile Shapiro (1977) offered this formulation:
their politics might best be described as "anarchist or nihilist, both
antipodes of authoritarianism, in its drive to jettison rules, tradition,
order, and values." Clearly, there was no accommodation with the pre-
vailing political and social ethos. Newman, Rothko, and Adolph Got-
tlieb were, in fact, life-long anarchists; once when asked about his, Rothko
answered, "What else?"
Cubism and surrealism were influences in the development of the
painters who became the New York School, but fundamentals of the
two major twentieth century orientations were rejected for characteris-
tically AE reasons. At base, the new painters emphasized (in addition to
expressiveness) flatness and literalness. As early as 1943, in a group New
York Times statement, they declared, "We are for flat forms because they
destroy illusion and reveal the truth." More specifically, they
condemned surrealism, still reigning in modern art at the time of the
statement, for its very conservative representationalism.
Abstract Expressionism, despite its abstraction, upheld concrete-
ness. Action paintings do not "stand for" anything outside themselves,
and in the autonomy of the artistic act imply an autonomy in the
world. The struggle to overcome mediation and non-transparency aes-
thetically looks past the goal of personal wholeness to that of the social
order. Many of these "Irascibles" (a Life magazine term) were attempt-
ing, by the late 1940s, "to eliminate all traces of existing symbol systems."
Frank O'Hara (1959) understood their aim as "a oneness which has no
need for the mediation of metaphor or symbol. "
The action in the picture became its own representation, and paintings
tried to convey their full meaning through direct sensation. Clifford Still,
Rothko, Newman and others used color to evoke the sublime directly. A
related method involved an unprecedented use of black as a color, for its
lack of ambiguity and potential expressive force; black and white
paintings were often used to try new approaches, in stark, non-chromatic
Although certainly not new to art, the use of the primitive was a
powerful element in much Action painting, as suggested by "Art has
been in decadence since the caveman," a sentiment from Miro. These
painters were interested in a spirit of communion with the primitive,
heeding the call of David Smith, sculptor and radical, for a "return to
origins, before purities were befouled by words." But in drawing from
this source, one sees a contradiction: the primitive represented not
only optimism and community, but also a state of brutality, helpless-
ness, and fear of nature. We now understand this ambivalence to have
been unnecessary, given the distinctly positive view that recent decades
of scholarship have disclosed of life in pre -civilization.
Art is predicated on its formal strategies and development. Even
an art that sought to embody impulses which are not primarily aes-
thetic finds its success or failure, at bottom, in formal terms. Robert
Motherwell gave his reason for this in a 1944 talk, the estimation that
"so long as modern society is dominated by the love of property — and
it will be, so long as property is the only source of freedom — the artist
has no alternative to formalism."
One obvious aspect of this, as already noted in passing, is the
rejection of representation. The Abstract Expressionists had come to
the conclusion that through thousands of years of exposure, represen-
tational images were worn out. As Rothko (1958) disclosed, " a time
came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it."
Running on Emptiness
To come more to the heart of the formal means involved, it is plausible
to assert not only that these works were new in the history of Western
civilization, but that they are the final evolution of painting. There is an
extreme, reductivist purification underlying them, prompting some to
refer to the "abolitionist" nature of Abstract Expressionism.
In their quest for critical revelation and the visionary, the Action
painters, in their varying styles, went after everything that was dispen-
sable and rejected it. Harold Rosenberg (1972) referred to their con-
ceptions of painting as "a kind of marathon of deletion." They were
going for broke, throwing out virtually every last convention in art to
get to the irreducible essentials.
In a reference to Cezanne's famous still lives that were so influen-
tial for modern art, Rosenberg had noted earlier (1959), "the apples weren't
swept off the table in order to make room for perfect relations of space
and color. They had to go so that nothing would get in the way of the
act of painting." This was the grand gesture of those who fought
desperately for a coherence possessed of supra-aesthetic potency, in the
face of an increasingly alienated and divided society. Small wonder that
few could follow the extremist paths of such aesthetic dialecticians.
The turbulent lives of the Abstract Expressionists constitute one
aspect of this demanding, ground-breaking project, and the limitations
of the aesthetic itself, a subject beyond the scope of this offering, is
another, more general question. It becomes hard to resist concluding,
let me concede, that the heroic AE enterprise was destined to be a dead
end, inspiring to some, but unrealizable. Max Horkheimer (1959)
was referring to the overreachings of Abstract Expressionism when he
judged, sadly, "As it becomes coherent in itself, it also becomes
mute, and that it requires commentary is proof of that fact."
In discarding the non-essentials to get at new heights of expressive
coherence, it was Jackson Pollock who went furthest. He realized how
little was left to work with and yet persisted in trying to force art to
make good on its never-delivered promise of revelation, to show us truth
that would truly make a difference.
Pollock's huge "drip" or poured canvases — their very size a rebuff
to market considerations — are unequalled in their immediacy, wildness
and epic qualities. Continually more inventive and radical, his project,
his life, was that of a total engagement of the spirit in the expression of
The poured technique, arrived at in 1947, was a daring formal
solution of dripping or even throwing paint in long, looping rhythms.
Michael Fried (1965) felt that Pollock had "managed to free line from
its function of representing objects in the world, but also from its task
of describing or bounding shapes and figures He advanced past
symbols, shapes and forms altogether, employing line as trajectory rather
than as a form-defining device. Not surprisingly, this breakthrough was
seen by not a few as the destruction of art.
Allan Kaprow in 1958, two years after Pollock's drunken end, referred
to him as "the embodiment of our ambition for absolute liberation and
a secretly cherished wish to overturn old tables of crockery and flat
champagne." A reminiscence of his work by Paul Jenkins (1985)
declared, "He awakens us like a flash of light, and his presence was
something that had gone through fire and existed in fire. ..."
There is often a violent, terrible energy to Pollock's paintings
which at times have a raw, unfinished feel to them. In fact, he tried
precisely to move beyond beauty, beyond the usual pictorial ambition.
The "well-made" picture, the notion of painting as some kind of haute
cuisine was just what he and the other Abstract Expressionists were out
to demolish. There was an undeniable sense of freedom to all this, an
exhilaration. At times it was "so delicious," recalled Willem DeKoon-
ing. "Like children we broke all the windows."
And this iconoclastic nihilism, again, was the bane of many critics.
Hilton Kramer, for instance, never tired of railing against Pollock's "anar-
chic" impulses, his "anarchic" sensibilities, the "vehemence of his anarchic
energy, " etc. (e.g. 1957). Even some of his fellow Action painters could be
shocked by the violence of Pollock's approach. Hans Hoffman, older and a
significant influence on the New York School in general, visited Pollock's
studio and was appalled by the disorder he found there. Picking up a dried-
out brush that had stuck to a palette, he said, "With this you could kill a
man." Jackson's reply was "That's the point."
An earlier encounter with Hoffmann, as recounted by Lee Krasner,
Pollock's wife and a considerable painter in her own right, is also
Running on Emptiness
I brought Hoffmann up to meet Pollock for the first time and Hoff-
mann said, after looking at his work, "You do not work from
nature." Pollock's answer was, "I am nature."
This seemingly bombastic statement had less to do, I would say,
with megalomania than with Pollock's rejection of the usual expedient
of symbolizing nature. Pollock was very much interested in nature all
the way along, and the rhythms of nature are readily recognized in
many of his pictures.
The movement, energy, and surprise of Pollock's major (1947-50)
works tend to make the eye of the viewer move constantly and thus
apprehend the image as a whole. A universal dimension is suggested,
in fact, an evocation of the totality precisely because nothing is repre-
sented. Primal vitality, dionysiac energy testify to how much he longed
"to escape from American ordinariness, its lure of banality." Pollock
displayed elements of an "apocalyptic mentality, of a social contract
with a future world and, simultaneously, a falling one," in the words of
Donald Kuspit (1979, 1980). His Utopian vision is also about origins,
about what has disappeared from the world, and is thus "partly a
project of retrieval" (T..T. Clark 1990). The promise of the past as well
as of the future — "memories arrested in space," his phrase — is what
he tried to convey, and what I think is told best by the sense of unlimited
freedom of his poured paintings. Pollock offers, as David Anfan
(1990) phrased it very well, "a foretaste of the reign of wonder."
As compared to Pollock's line and energy, Mark Rothko utilized fields
of color and repose; aside from their commitment to total abstraction, the
two are stylistic opposites. But Rothko, in another approach to shared
values, made almost as large a contribution to pictorial heresy as his
slightly younger colleague. Early on, around 1945, he made some of his
strongest, defining statements for emerging Abstract Expressionism and
in time reached such levels of the sublime in painting as to go, according
to Dore Ashton (1958), "almost beyond the reach of the word."
Two or three centrally aligned rectangles, floating in layers of vibrant
light and color, were a characteristic picture, by which he gave materiality
to his redemptive vision. A secret, inner harmony underlies these works,
a pulsating presence, what he termed "the impact of the
unequivocal." He aimed at a distilled content that, like that of other
Action painters, had jettisoned such components as recognizable subject
matter, spatial illusion, complex formal relationships, even titles.
It was out of fear of being assimilated by society that Rothko purged
his art of any precise images. As he wrote in 1947, "The familiar
identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite
associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect
of our environment." The "look" of the everyday only gets in the way
of seeing what is really there and what really could be there.
Like his friends Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, Rothko was
something of an absolutist, morally and politically. He was also an
anarchist during his entire adult life, and the anti-authoritarian foun-
dation of his outlook was always present. This comes through even in a
remark about the size of paintings, in favor of big canvases:
"However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something
you command. "
Growing up in Portland, Oregon, he listened to IWW orators and
once heard Emma Goldman speak. His ill-fated Seagram murals experi-
ence in the late 1950s is a colorful testimony to an anarchist, anti -com-
modity, and anti-art world perspective. Rothko accepted a commission
to paint several murals for the restaurant in the New York headquarters
of the Seagram liquor corporation, but later changed his mind on the
subject of adorning space mainly frequented by a ruling class clientele.
He had hoped "to paint something that would ruin the appetite of
every son of a bitch who ever ate in that room. " Reconsidering the
soundness of this tactic, as Breslin (1993) tells it, he returned the com-
mission in disgust, raging that "Anybody who will eat that kind of food
for those kinds of prices will never look at a painting of mine."
Rothko's paintings often evoke strongly emotional responses,
including great sadness. It was a mark of his courage to struggle so
long and so well with his glowing color fields, against the sterility of
society and encroaching depression and despair. An almost obsessional
darkness began to creep into his vision by 1957, and his late works, largely
grey negativities, move toward a dimming invisibility.
Barnett Newman was one of the main whipping boys of Abstract
Running on Emptiness
When in 1950 he first showed his remarkably simple color-field
paintings, generally consisting of a huge expanse of one color divided
by a couple of thin vertical stripes, even his outlaw colleagues rejected
them. Many consider his works to be the most radical of all Abstract
A Newman picture overwhelms the eye with one main color, pro-
viding the immediate sensation of an all-pervading forcefulness. Newman's
thrust was the primal unity, wholeness, harmony between humanity and
nature, and the potential greatness of the human spirit.
He strove for the highest in discourse and momentous meaning, and
while the means were drastically simplified, content was amplified. In a
July 1950 letter from Still, one of his few supporters at the time, the
"magnitude" and "intensity" of Newman's color were linked to a total
rejection of contemporary culture and those behind it. In response to the
question of what his art could mean to the world, he pointed to a
canvas from his inaugural 1950 exhibition and said, "You know, that
painting, if read correctly, means the end of the capitalist system!"
Newman was a Utopian primitivist who advocated a return to the
first, communal forms of human society. He upheld a vision of life
based on voluntary cooperation, free of antagonism and repression. Never
sympathetic to the Communist Party, from the 1920s he was an active
anarchist, and taught himself Yiddish in order to read the only anarchist
newspaper then available in New York. In 1933 Newman ran for mayor
of New York on a platform of free housing, public galleries and
orchestra spaces, the closing of streets to private automobiles, and
playgrounds for adults.
Looking back at Abstract Expressionism (1966), he claimed that
"we actually began, so to speak, from scratch, as if painting were not
only dead but had never existed." But Newman was definitely influ-
enced, as were 1 9th century figures like Pisarro and Seurat, by
Kropotkin's ideas of artistic autonomy and mutualist spontaneity. Indeed, in
the late 1 960s, not long before he died, he persuaded a publisher who
wanted to bring out a book of Newman's own collected writings to instead
publish Kropotkin's Memoirs of a, Revolutionist, for which he wrote a
Barnett Newman's friend and fellow anarchist Clyfford Still drew
less on Kropotkin's critique of society, than from Bakunin's demand for
its violent abolition. In fact, the uncompromising vehemence and
intensity of his approach almost make Newman look like a genial
For starters, no other artist had ever loathed the art world as a system
with such an undying passion. Critics were "venomous scribblers,"
galleries were "brothels," the Museum of Modern Art in particular was a
"gas chamber." He rejected all constraints and demanded that art work
assume the most momentous of empancipatory responsibilities.
His style was that of rough and craggy fields of color, usually sug-
gesting turbulence and cataclysm. These generally large, raw pictures
refused comfortable confinement within edges. He wrote in 1963 that
"to be stopped by a frame's edge was intolerable; a Euclidean prison
had to be annihilated, its authoritarian implications repudiated. ..."
His all-or-nothing outlook placed enormous faith in the inherent
autonomy of engage art as an instrument of freedom. Blake and Nietzche
were influences; even more so he emphasized the reassertion of human
beginnings to show the way toward clearing away the weight of accumu-
lated imprisonment. Donald Kuspit (1977) pondered "this grand primitivist
negation, this grand return to origins" in the service of a radical freedom,
and understood its underlying affirmation.
Still rejected what he called the "totalitarian hegemony" of art's
history. The "security' that comes from tradition, he wrote in 1952, is
"an illusion, banal, and without courage." The alienated, technological
essence of the Bauhaus school, "I rejected out of hand as an abdication
to systems of power and mass control with their underpinnings of
political and economic reactionary theses. ..." His critical acumen
and acerbic style are, I think, worth quoting further in this regard:
The manifestoes and gestures of the Cubists, the Fauves, the
Dadaists, Surrealists, Futurists or Expressionists were only evidence that
the Black Mass was but a pathetic homage to that which it often
presumed to mock. And the Bauhaus herded them briskly into a cool,
universal Buchenwald. All the devices were at hand, and all the
devices had failed to emancipate.
For the severe Still, painting was really a life and death affair on
both personal and social levels; its potential was boundless. He
Running on Emptiness
reflected in 1963 on his role in the 1940s: "I had made it clear that a
single stroke of paint, backed by work and a mind that understood its
potency and implications, could restore to man the freedom lost in
twenty centuries of apologies and devices for subjugation." As he had
said in 1952, "We are now committed to an unqualified act, not illus-
trating outworn myths or contemporary alibis."
If Abstract Expressionism had an organizer, it was the articulate
internationalist, Robert Motherwell. Somewhat like Barnett Newman,
he facilitated and promoted the movement and its basic orientation. He
saw at its heart "a rejection of nearly everything that seems to interest nearly
everyone, a protest against what goes on and the art that supports it"
(1950), and was most impressed by "the radiance and subtlety with
which this attitude of protest is expressed."
He found the whole point of existence, in fact, to be opposing the
established order, but his work, while strongly radiant, does not strike
one as subtle. For 30 years he painted his Elegies to the Spanish Republic:
thick, black and brooding forms, rough-edged, dripping and full of
emotional intensity. He executed over 140 pictures in this long series of
a similar black and white style, possessing inescapable physical presence
and urgency. As with so many other Action painters, he dared to
drastically simplify the number of elements and thereby achieved a greatly
magnified expressive power.
Motherwell wrote in 1948 of a projected Abstract Expressionist
goal of "ridding us of the glory of conquerors and politicos," of "defending
[human] values with intelligence and ingenuity against the property -loving
world." More specifically, he saw the new school as deeply critical of
standardization and instrumentalism, later sadly concluding (1977)
that "Western man, in choosing centuries ago to exploit nature
rather than marry her, has doomed himself ... with an industrial
technology" out of his control. "One can only guess," he had written
in 1959, "if there were something more deeply and humanly inspiring, at
what we might be, what all mankind might be capable of"
Franz Kline, Willem deKooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph
Gottlieb, Phillip Guston, so many important others, too many for
even brief commentary here. The spirit of inspired antagonism of that
whole heroic and diverse group was perhaps best captured in 1 949 by
William Baziotes: "when the demagogues of art call on you to make
the social art, the intelligible art, the good art — spit on them and go
back to your dreams. "
After a brief period of critical success and Just as some of its parti-
sans were finally able to sell a few paintings and wonder if they were
selling out, by the late '50s, Abstract Expressionism was on the wane.
The Italian critic Marco Valsecchi wrote in 1950 of its basis in "the
necessity of surviving as individuals without being crushed by the con-
formism of industrialized life," and that AE paintings give the sense of
"witnessing a shipwreck and the fight for survival." Very similar was
Gottlieb's 1963 statement, "Everything seemed hopeless and we had
nothing to lose, so that in a sense we were like people condemned to
life imprisonment who make a dash for freedom. "
Though based on resistance and refusal, their desperate initiative
was widely misunderstood and steadily assimilated into the prevailing
cultural, political, and social ethos. Nonetheless, Action painting was
not only the evident end of formal development in art, it was the
highest point, in its sphere, of the whole modernist project. And because of
what David Craven (1990) recognized as its "unequivocal opposition to
scientism, technologism, and wage labour alienation," Abstract
Expressionism superseded the non-radical Enlightenment belief in
progress usually found near the heart of modernism.
By the late '50s, Pop Art, which represents a sweeping transition
from modernism to postmodernism, was in full swing. Martha Rosier
(1981) perceived the postmodern renunciation of purity and celebra-
tion of pluralism as "a pretend triumph of egalitarian tolerance." At
base, and seen most clearly in Pop Art, it simply reflects the enormous
consequences of mounting post-war commodity production and con-
sumption. Shallow, banal, indiscriminate, Pop Art exalts the standard-
ized and makes no demand upon the viewer except his or her money. It
has exactly nothing of the inner necessity or passionately sought
authenticity of its immediate artistic predecessor. The triumph of Pop
Art over Abstract Expressionism is inseparable from "the feeling of
bankruptcy that permeates our art and culture," that Kim Levin
referred to in 1986.
True to the postmodern canon, Pop Art renounces any grasp of
the whole, and in so doing ends up with just what the system gives it.
Running On Emptiness
As Octavio Paz saw in 1973, Pop Art is not a figure in a vision, but a
mannequin in a department store. The commercial images of Warhol
and the rest are unmistakably tied to the oppressive set-up whose
understanding it rules out. It is their objective of totality that gave Action
painting, according to T.J. Clark (1990), both its fierceness and its
sensuousness. While the likes of Pop Art come and go as trivial con-
sumption, the valiant, life-affirming effort of Abstract Expressionism will
endure and inspire.
THE AGE OF NIHILISM
Technological mediation and separation continue on their emptying
ascendancy, embodying so well capital's impoverishing penetration of
every level of life on this planet. But there are signs that an era of
unchecked cynicism, engendered by this rampant advance of techno-
capital, is finally being challenged. The challengers, moreover, are quickly
deepening their understanding of how fundamental the challenge must
be if it is to succeed.
With this in mind, the following comments on nihilism may well
be less apropos than they would have been even a year or two ago. For
the focus of this essay is passive nihilism, rather than the probing, crit-
ical variety, which is the active nihilism now emerging as a force to be
reckoned with. Nonetheless, the question of how and why an enfee-
bling ethos of meaninglessness and indifference came to predominate
may still be of some interest.
In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev described the nihilist as one "who
looks at everything critically ... who does not take any principle for
granted, however much that principle may be revered." But during the
same period, Dostoevsky portrayed modern, passive nihilism in Notes
from Underground. Its protagonist was merely disgruntled, and lacked
the passion and conviction necessary to hold convention to the flame of
Running On Emptiness
During the following century, it appears, the sense that nothing matters
became widespread. One current among others, quite obviously, but a
growing one. Nothing counts more than anything else, so nothing really
counts. Nietzsche had said that nihilism "stands at the door" of modern
civilization, and that door opened wider as the important sources of
meaning and value steadily revealed themselves as inconsequential and
irrelevant, unequal to the rigors of modern life.
Heidegger found in nihilism "the fundamental movement of the
history of the West," and what was the bane of the nineteenth century
became, by the 1990s, a banality. Nihilism, in the current postmodern
clime, is simply the matter-of-fact state of mind of our period — so
widespread today is the attitude that little or nothing is compelling,
authentic, or makes a difference. Distinctions of value or meaning and
the value or meaning of distinctions are less and less persuasive. There is
a cultural exhaustion in the movement through decadence into nihilism.
According to John Gray, nihilism constitutes modernity's "only truly
universal inheritance to humankind."
That inheritance has accelerated, it seems, since the failure of the
movement of the 1 960s, when belief in continuous Progress had reached
its peak. As Utopian oases dried up, a desert of inertia and pointlessness
spread. By the '80s, with nothing to look for and nowhere to go, youth
were tagged as slackers, Generation X, etc. In the summer of 1990,
the New York Times called kids the generation "that couldn't care less."
With young people looking ahead to a lifetime of strain and
empty consumerism, it should surprise no one that teens' suicide rate
has tripled in the past 30 years. Or that network television now offers
what amount to "snuff" programs for the jaded and bored, as the pop-
ulation in general experiences its life -world as more and more of a vacuum
in every way. A melancholy escapism flowers in this Dead Zone, this
Development is a given; this cancer of a system would soon col-
lapse without its steady onslaught. It continues its onrush into the
hypermodern vista of high-tech unreality. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a
consequence of the erosion of the Christian world view. But this is a
superficial judgment, in many ways confusing effect with cause.
A deeper causative factor is the march of technology, in the direction
The Age of Nihilism
of the complete industrialization of society. From the present apex of
cultural homogenization and standardized life, this is easier to see than it
was for Nietzsche more than a century ago. The hollowing out of the
substance and texture of daily existence is being completed, a process inti-
mately related to the near impossibility of experiencing the world without
technological mediation. The overall destruction of experience speaks to the
deprivation at the heart of both technology and nihilism,
With this absence of unmediated personal experience at the heart of
technological progress, skyrocketing levels of stress and depression cannot
be surprising. Technology mediates between individuals and nature,
ultimately abolishing both. With the triumph of technology, autonomy
regresses and negates itself. The promises have all been lies. One is the
promise of connection, so mercilessly (though inadvertently) mocked in
a recent TV commercial: "I've got gigabytes. I've got megabytes. I'm
voice-mailed. I'm e-mailed. I surf the Net. I'm on the Web. I am Cyber-
Man. So how come I feel so out of touch?"
A set-up whose essence is efficiency is already fundamentally nihilist.
Technical rules are rapidly supplanting ethical norms by making them
irrelevant. What is more efficient or less efficient holds sway, not some
moral consideration, even as the systemic goals of techno-capital are
shaped by the evolution of its technology. Production, based on mastery
and control, becomes more visibly a process of humanity devouring itself.
When powerlessness prevails, a generalized sense of paranoia is not
an illogical symptom. Similarly, a current and telling form of cynicism
is technological fatalism ("There's nothing we can do about it"),
further exposing the tendency of cynicism to shade into conformity. As
Horkheimer and Adorno observed, "technological rationale is the rationale
of domination itself. "
Understanding and responsibility succumb to an ever-increasing
fragmentation, a division of labor that is always unequal and alienat-
ing. The only wholeness resides in the fundamental system that turns
all else into parts. As the moral self recedes, it becomes harder to grasp
the relationship of these parts to one another and to see what they are
part of. Domination and nihilism's crisis of meaning are inseparably
For Heidegger, technology constitutes the final phase of nihilism.
Running On Emptiness
Under its sign all talk of freedom, happiness, emancipation becomes a
mockery. In fact, technology itself becomes the ideological basis of society,
having destroyed the possibility of other, overt forms of justification.
Engagement or belief are hardly necessary for technology's effective rule.
In this way the nagging problem of declining participation in the system
can be mitigated, or deferred.
Technology is the embodiment of the totalizing system of capital,
and media is an indispensable, ever more defining bridge between
technology and the commodity system. If the high-tech information
explosion cancels all meaning in a meaningless noise, the mass-enter-
tainment industrial complex pumps out increasingly desperate diver-
sions to a society of relentless consumerism.
"Infotainment" and Mc Journalism are the latest pop culture prod-
ucts of nihilism. Why bother with truth if nothing can be done about
reality anyway? And yet media, like technology, is always promising
solutions to problems it has created, or worsened. One example among
many is the significant rise in teen smoking in the 1 990s despite an
enormous media campaign aimed at reducing teen smoking. Strangely
enough, beefing up the media does not combat alienated behaviors.
In the United States, and soon to spread elsewhere as not less than a
function of development, we witness the recent transition to an amusement
society of commodified spectacles and simulations. The eclipse of non-
mediated reality feeds still greater urges to escape an emptied everyday life.
Massif ied culture works in favor of distraction, conformity, and culturally
enforced stupidity. The consequent lack of authenticity produces a mass
turn-off, not unrelated to the decline of literacy.
The collapse of the distinction between reality and simulation in
the world of representation can be seen as the ultimate failure of the
symbolic. Art, music, and other forms of symbolic culture are losing
their power to pacify and console us. Simulation technologies are just
the most recent steps away from lived life, toward represented life. Their
failure to satisfy means that the system must turn, increasingly, to
containment and control.
To protect the desolate society an alternative to that society is safely set
up, by means of image technologies. As the social dimensions of human
life disappear along with meaning and value, a consumer
The Age of Nihilism
society in cyberspace becomes the next stage of human existence. We
are moving steadily toward the goal of complete illusion — virtual life
in a virtual reality .
Under the Juggernaut, the subject is not supposed to have any
sense of social causality, structure, coherence, or motive. Virtual Reality's
merely surface experience is exactly mirrored by postmodermsm's
fascination with surfaces. As the culture that can just barely still be
called one, postmodernism celebrates its own depthlessness, and is thus
nihilism's essential accomplice. It comes to pervade society when too
many have given up hope that they can plumb the depth and roots of
the whole. Postmodern perspectives are grounded m the incapacity to
specify why change might be desirable or how it might come about.
Postmodernism is fundamentally the collapse and refusal of the chance
to understand the totality. This indeed is the postmodern boast,
mirroring the fragmentation of life instead of challenging it. Its "politics" is
that of pragmatism, the tired liberalism that accommodates to the
Deconstruction, for example, treats every moral statement as an
endlessly mampulable fragment that possesses neither meaning nor
intrinsic worth. Rem Koolhaus formulates the overall PM subjugation
as follows: "According to Derrida we cannot be Whole, according to
Baudrillard we cannot be real, according to Virilio we cannot be There."
Postmodernism, it might be argued, expresses fewer illusions, but the
basic ones remain unchallenged. Its exhausted, ironic cynicism is prostrate
before the nihilist ascendancy. What could be more passive than
critique-less postmodernism double talk — an ideology of acquiescence.
Falsely laying claim to the protection of the particular as against the
universal, postmodernism presents no defense whatsoever against the
most universalizing force of all, technology. In the guise of particularity
it incarnates nothing less than the realization of technology's universalizing
Postmodernism emphasizes plurality, accessibility, absence of
boundaries, endless possibility. Just as consumerist society does. And
just as speciously. Where culturally a glut of meaningless information
and incoherent fragments hold sway, the glut of ersatz commodities
provides a perfect economic parallel. The liberty that remains to us is
essentially the freedom to choose among brands A, B, and C, and the
KFC in Tienanmen Square expresses domination as surely as the sup-
pression of human rights protesters there in 1989.
"Systematic consumer segmentation and micro-marketing" is the
dominant model of individualism today in the nihilist ethos of listless
yet restless buyers. In fact, in an overwhelmingly commodified exis-
tence, consumption becomes the number one form of entertainment.
Little wonder that academic journals now seriously discuss not only the
McDonaldization of society but also its Disneyization, while life is largely
defined in terms of consumer styles. The cognitive and moral focus of
life becomes that of consumer behavior — including, it should be noted,
voting and recycling.
Nihilism has effectively leached out the substance and texture from
the life-world in the painful progression by which capital and technology
have reduced and debased everything in their way. There is no exit from
the closed system except by the elimination of that system.
Civilization begins by myth and ends in radical doubt, to para-
phrase E.M. Cioran. This may remind Usthat cultural radicalism,
which has become such a convention, feeds the dominant system
rather than undermining it. Culture, born of alienation, needs alien-
ation to go on. We must challenge the idea of symbolic culture as well
as the reality of high-tech barbarism.
Nihilism is not a one-way street with no return, rather a route that
has revealed the ensemble of domination for what it is. There are now
very visible signs of the possibility of breaking its hold, redeeming its
long, dark night.
POSTSCRIPT TO FUTURE PRIMITIVE'
RE: THE TRANSITION
"Yeah, the critique is impressive and everything, but just how might
we actually get from this ghastly world to some healed, whole existence?"
I think we should not doubt that such a journey is possible, nor
that the explosion necessary to begin it may be approaching.
The thought of the dominant culture has, of course, always told us
that alienated life is inescapable. In fact, culture or civilization itself
expresses this essential dogma: the civilizing process, as Freud noted, is the
forcible trading of a free, natural life for one of unceasing repression.
Today culture is in a dispirited, used-up state wherever one looks.
More important than the entropy afflicting the logic of culture, however, is
what seems to be the active, if inchoate resistance to it. This is the ray
of hope that disturbs the otherwise all-too-depressing race we witness
to determine whether total alienation or the destruction of the biomass
will happen first.
People are being stretched and beaten on the rack of everyday
emptiness, and the spell of civilization is fading. Lasch referred to a near-
universal rage abroad in society, just under the surface. It is growing and
its symptoms are legion, amounting to a refusal to leave this earth
Running on Emptiness
Adorno asked, "What would happiness be that was not measured by
the immeasurable grief at what is?" Certainly, the condition of life has
become nightmarish enough to justify such a question, and
perhaps also to suggest that something started to go deeply wrong a
very long time back. At least it ought to be demonstrating, moving on
toward specifics, that the means of reproducing the prevailing Death
Ship (e.g. its technology) cannot be used to fashion a liberated world.
Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler wondered, "What is 'common' about
the common life? What if some genius were to do with 'common life'
what Einstein did with 'matter'? Finding its energetics, uncovering its
radiance." Of course, we must all be that "Einstein," which is exactly
what will unleash a creative energy sufficient to utterly refashion the
conditions of human existence. Ten thousand years of captivity and
darkness, to paraphrase Vaneigem, will not withstand ten days of full-
out revolution, which will include the simultaneous reconstruction of
our inner selves. Who doesn't hate modern life? Can what condition-
ing that remains survive such an explosion of life, one that ruthlessly
removes the sources of such conditioning?
We are obviously being held hostage by capital and its technology,
made to feel dependent, even helpless, by the sheer weight of it all, the
massive inertia of centuries of alienated categories, patterns, values. What
could be dispensed with immediately? Borders, governments, hierarchy,
what else? How fast could more deep-seated forms of authority and sepa-
ration be dissolved, such as that of division of labor? I assert, and not, I
hope, in the spirit of wishing to derive blueprints from abstract principle,
that I can see no ultimate freedom or wholeness without the dissolution of
the inherent power of specialists of every kind.
Many say that millions would die if the present techno-global
fealty to work and the commodity were scrapped. But this overlooks
many potentialities. For example, consider the vast numbers of people
who would be freed from manipulative, parasitic, destructive pursuits
for those of creativity, health, and liberty. At present, in fact, very few
contribute in any way to satisfying authentic needs.
Transporting food thousands of miles, not an atypical pursuit today,
is an instance of pointless activity, as is producing countless tons of
herbicide and pesticide poisons. The picture of humanity starving if a
transformation were attempted may be brought into perspective by
Postscript to Future Primitive
reference to a few other agricultural specifics, of a more positive
nature. It is perfectly feasible, generally speaking, that we grow our
own food. There are simple approaches, involving no division of labor,
to large yields in small spaces.
Agriculture itself must be overcome, as domestication, and because it
removes more organic matter from the soil than it puts back. Perma-
culture is a technique that seems to attempt an agriculture that devel-
ops or reproduces itself and thus tends toward nature and away from
domestication. It is one example of promising interim ways to survive
while moving away from civilization. Cultivation within the cities is
another aspect of practical transition, and a further step toward super-
seding domestication would be a more or less random propagation of
plants, a la Johnny Appleseed.
Regarding urban life, any steps toward autonomy and self-help
should be realized, beginning now, so that cities may be all the more
quickly abandoned later. Created out of capital's need to centralize
control of property transactions, religion, and political domination, cities
remain as extended life-destroying monuments to the same basic needs
of capital. Something on the order of what we know now as museums might
be a good idea so that post -upheaval generations could know how grotesque
our species' existence became. Moveable celebration sites may by the
nearest configuration to cities that disalienated life will express.
Along with the movement out of cities, paralleling it, one might
likely see a movement from colder climes to warmer ones. The heating
of living space in northern areas constitutes an absurd effort of energy,
resources, and time. When humans become once again intimate with
the earth, healthier and more robust, these zones would probably be peopled
again, in altogether different ways.
As for population itself, its growth is no more a natural or neutral
phenomenon than is technology. When life is fatally out of balance,
the urge to reproduce appears as compensation for impoverishment on
various levels. In the absence of such impoverishment, as with the non-
civilized gatherer-hunters surviving today, population levels would be
relatively quite low.
Enrico Guidoni pointed out that architectural structures necessarily
reveal a great deal about their social context. Similarly, the isolation and
sterility of shelter in class society is hardly accidental, and deserves
Running on Emptiness
to be scrapped in toto. Rudofsky's Architecture Without Architects deals
with some examples of shelter not produced by specialists, but by
spontaneous and evolving communal activity. Imagine the inviting richness
of dwellings, each unique not mass produced, and a part of a serene
mutuality that one might expect to emerge from the collapse of boundaries
and artificial scarcities, material and emotional.
Probably "health" in a new world will be a matter even less recog-
nizable that the question of shelter. The dehumanized industrial "med-
icine" of today is totally complicitous with the overall processes of society
which rob us of life and vitality. Of countless examples of the criminality
of the present, direct profiting from human misery must rank near the
top. Alternative healing practices are already challenging the dominant
mode, but the only real solution is the abolition of a setup that by its
very nature spawns an incredible range of physical and psychic
immiseration. From Reich to Mailer, for example, cancer is recognized
as the growth of a general madness blocked and denied. Before civilization
disease was generally nonexistent. How could it have been otherwise?
Where else do degenerative and infectious diseases, emotional maladies,
and all the rest issue if not from work, toxicity, cities, estrangement, fear,
unfulfilled lives — the whole canvas of damaged, alienated reality?
Destroying the sources will eradicate the suffering. Minor exigencies
would be treated by herbs and the like, not to mention a diet of pure, non-
It seems evident that industrialization and the factories could not
be gotten rid of instantly, but equally clear that their liquidation must
be pursued with all the vigor behind the rush of break-out. Such
enslavement of people and nature must disappear forever, so that words
like production and economy will have no meaning. A graffito from
the rising in France in '68 was simply "Quick!" Those partisans apparently
realized the need to move rapidly forward all the way, with no
temporizing or compromise with the old world. Half a revolution
would only preserve domination and cement its hold over us.
A qualitatively different life would entail abolishing exchange, in every
form, in favor of the gift and the spirit of play. Instead of the coercion of
work — and how much of the present could continue without precisely that
coercion? — an existence without constraints is an immediate, central
objective. Unfettered pleasure, creative endeavor
Postscript to Future Primitive
along the lines of Fourier: according to the passions of the individual
and in a context of complete equality.
What would we keep? "Labor-saving devices?" Unless they involve
no division of labor (e.g. a lever or incline), this concept is a fiction; behind
the "saving" is hidden the congealed drudgery of many and the despoliation
of the natural world. As the Parisian group Interrogations put it:
"Today's riches are not human riches; they are riches for capitalism
which correspond to a need to sell and stupefy. The products we
manufacture, distribute, and administer are the material expressions of
our alienation. "
Every kind of fear and doubt is cultivated against the prospect or
possibility of transforming life, including the moment of its beginning.
"Wouldn't revolt mean mayhem, hoarding, survivalist violence, etc.?"
But popular uprisings seem to embody strong feelings of joy, unity, and
generosity. Considering the most recent U.S. examples, the urban
insurrections of the '60s, New York City '77 , and Los Angeles '92 —
one is struck by the spontaneous sharing, the sharp drop in interracial
violence and violence against women, and general sense of festival.
Our biggest obstacle lies in forgetting the primacy of the negative.
Hesitation, peaceful coexistence — this deficiency of desire will prove fatal
if allowed to be ascendant. The truly humanitarian and pacific impulse is
that which is committed to relentlessly destroying the malignant dynamic
known as civilization, including its roots. Time is a stunting, confining
imposition of culture, naming is a domination — like counting, an aspect
of the distancing of language. In the horrible extremity of today we can
see the need to return all the way to the earth, to the multi-sensual
intimacy of nature that obtained before symbolization made living a reified,
separated caricature of itself.
Enchantment might be savored even more brightly this time, for
knowing what our ancestors didn't realize must be avoided.
Tearing up the concrete could begin immediately, as my late friend
Bob Brubaker once counseled. Literally, under the pavement, it's the
Running On Emptiness
AGE OF GRIEF
A pervasive sense of loss and unease envelops us, a cultural sadness
that can justly be compared to the individual who suffers a personal
A hyper-technologized late capitalism is steadily effacing the living
texture of existence, as the world's biggest die-off in 50 million years
proceeds apace: 50,000 plant and animal species disappear each year
(World Wildlife Fund, 1996).
Our grieving takes the form of postmodern exhaustion, with its
wasting diet of an anxious, ever-shifting relativism, and that attachment to
surface that fears connecting with the fact of staggering loss. The fatal
emptiness of ironized consumerism is marked by loss of energy, difficulty
in concentrating, feelings of apathy, social withdrawal: precisely those
enumerated in the psychological literature of mourning.
The falsity of postmodernism consists in its denial of loss, the refusal to
mourn. Devoid of hope or vision for the future, the reigning Zeitgeist also
cuts off, very explicitly, an understanding of what has happened and why.
There is a ban on thinking about origins, which is companion to an
insistence on the superficial, the fleeting, the ungrounded.
Parallels between individual grief and a desolate, grieving common
sphere are often striking. Consider the following from therapist Kenneth
Doka (1989): "Disenfranchised grief can be defined as the grief that
persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly
acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported." Denial on an
individual level provides an inescapable metaphor for denial at large;
personal denial, so often thoroughly understandable, introduces the
question of refusal to come to grips with the crisis occurring at every
Ushering in the millennium are voices whose trademark is opposi-
tion to narrative itself, escape from any kind of closure. The modernist
project at least made room for the apocalyptic; now we are expected to
hover forever — as if much of even survival seems likely — in a world of
surfaces and simulation that ensure the "erasure" of the real world and
the dispersal of both the self and the social. Baudrillard is of course
emblematic of the "end of the end," based on his prefigured "extermination
We may turn again to the psychological literature for apt descriptive
points. Deutsch (1937) examined the absence of expressions of grief that
occur following some bereavements and considered this a defensive attempt
of the ego to preserve itself in the face of overwhelming anxiety. Fenichel
(1945) observed that grief is at first experienced only in very small doses; if
it were released full-strength, the subject would feel overwhelming despair.
Similarly, Grimspoon (1964) noted that "people cannot risk being
overwhelmed by the anxiety which might accompany a full cognitive and
affective grasp of the present world situation and its implications for the
With these counsels and cautions in mind, it is nonetheless
obvious that loss must be faced. All the more so in the realm of social
existence, where in distinction to, say, the death of a loved one, a crisis of
monumental proportions might be turned toward a transformative solution,
if no longer denied.
Repression, most clearly and presently practiced via postmodern
fragmentation and superficiality, does not extinguish the problem. "The
repressed," according to Bollas (1995) "signifies the preserved: hidden away
in the organized tensions of the unconscious, wishes and their memories are
ceaselessly struggling to find some way into gratification in the present —
desire refuses annihilation. "
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Grief is the thwarting and deadening of desire and very much resembles
depression; in fact, many depressions are precipitated by losses (Klerman,
1981). Both grief and depression may have anger at their root; consider, for
example, the cultural association of black with grief and mourning and with
anger, as in "black rage."
Traditionally, grief has been seen as giving rise to cancer. A con-
temporary variation of this thesis is Norman Mailer's notion that
cancer is the unhealthiness of a deranged society, turned inward, bridging
the personal and public spheres. Again, a likely connection among grief,
depression, and anger, and testimony, I think, to massive repression. Signs
abound concerning weakening immune defenses; along with increasing
material toxins, there seems to be an rising level of grief and its
concomitants. When meaning and desire are too painful, too unpromising
to admit or pursue, the accumulating results only add to the catastrophe
To look at narcissism, today's bellwether profile of character, is to see
suffering as an ensemble of more and more closely related aspects.
Lasch (1979) wrote of such characteristic traits of the narcissistic
personality as an inability to feel, protective shallowness, increased
repressed hostility, and a sense of unreality and emptiness. Thus narcissism,
too, could be subsumed under the heading of grief, and the larger
suggestion arises with perhaps greater force: there is something profoundly
wrong, something at the heart of all this sorrow, however much it is
commonly labeled under various separate categories.
In a 1917 exploration, "Mourning and Melancholia," a puzzled Freud
asked why the memory of "each single one of the memories and hopes" that
is connected to the lost loved one "should be so extraordinarily painful."
But tears of grief, it is said, are at base tears for oneself. The intense sorrow
at a personal loss, tragic and difficult as it most certainly is, may be in some
way also a vulnerability to sorrow over a more general, almost trans-species
Walter Benjamin wrote his "Theses on History" a few months before
his premature death in 1 940 at a sealed frontier that prevented escape from
the Nazis. Breaking the constraints of Marxism and literariness, Benjamin
achieved a high point of critical thinking. He saw the angel of history
blown by a gale out of Paradise. He saw
Age of G rie f
that civilization, from its origin, is that storm evacuating Eden, saw
that progress is a single, ongoing catastrophe.
Alienation and anguish were once largely, if not entirely, unknown.
Today the rate of serious depression, for example, doubles roughly every
ten years in the developed nations (Wright, 1995).
As Peter Homans (1984) put it very ably, "Mourning does not destroy
the past — it reopens relations with it and with the communities of the
past. " Authentic grieving poses the opportunity to understand what has
been lost and why, also to demand the recovery of an innocent state of
being, wherein needless loss is banished.
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Memory is a basic human faculty that, despite its vagaries and problematics,
we pretty much take for granted. Memory is so much always at hand, so basic to
our ability to grasp reality, that it might seem impossible to accurately understand.
Stephen Braude (1992), for instance, concluded that it is "plausible to regard
memory as a phenomenon that is literally unanalyzable."
But what of the "anthropology" of memory? In a formulation
that Adorno and Horkheimer (1947) perhaps did not take far
enough, "every reification is a forgetting," and reification, the
conversion of the living and autonomous into things, into objects,
is the foundation of civilization. Domestication is its pronounced
realization. How much, then, has memory been defined or
deformed by domestication, by a world in which the very
structure of experience has been essentially altered? And if
reification is a forgetting, it follows that the demystification and
dissolution of reification must involve a remembering. According
to phenomenologist Edward Casey (1987), "We have forgotten
what memory is, and can mean; and we make matters worse by
repressing the fact of our own oblivion."
Memory is socially and culturally constructed. Every model of
memory is thus culturally specific, and, as Melion and Kuchler
(1991) point out, the pursuit of memory promotes and maintains
formation itself. Politico-cultural practices, in dialectical interplay,
influence the shape of memory. Arthur G. Miller (1991), for
example, studied the ways in which "pre-Hispanic calendrics and
territorial management strategies fashioned memory as a process
of selective remembering and forgetting, governing patterns of
labor and loyalty."
Russell provided a rather famous philosophical argument to the
effect that, for all we know, the world might have sprung into
existence five minutes ago complete with our "memories" of
childhood, etc. We unconsciously strive to not be a part of memory
that alienation has forged, knowing that Russell's questioning
does nothing to lessen the force of that memory. History has
been cynically referred to as the science of forgetting, perhaps
because what it remembers is inadequate to an understanding of
our sadness, our incompleteness. As the poet Carnevale (1967)
said, "memories weep or mourn, all memories do."
The origins of our condition and its long, painful passage must be
re-collected if memory is to claim its own memory. In The
Phenomenology of Mind Hegel claimed that memory "forms the
passage from representation to thought." But since representation
and thought are themselves non-neutral, this formulation does
little to uncover the roots of what has been so deeply obscured.
Three hundred years ago, Robert Fludd saw memory as
reflected in the organization of the external world. He saw its
contours represented by those of some Renaissance technologies,
especially theaters. Today acquisition, storage, and retrieval of
memory data is the dominant model, obviously based on
memory as a computer. Now we experience an increasingly
programmed and impoverished collective experience, one of
whose primary effects is an imposed cultural memory that
legitimates dominated life. And the very defining of memory is
inseparable from the texture and organization of social existence.
Its embeddedness in the prevailing state of division of labor is a
key aspect of its variability and limitations.
What can we say of memory in its current condition, and its
connections to other cultural dimensions? In terms of time it
presents features that may seem contrary to our unexamined
associations. For example, as Brain (1966) observed, our
sensation of time is not furnished by memory. Having
memories "is not," in this regard, "enough, for having a memory
is a present state." If time is the enemy of life
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lived in the here-and-now, memory cannot be seen as its ally. Like
dreams, memory takes place outside of time. Or as Friedman (1990)
understated it, "time is relatively insignificant information in the
natural functioning of memory."
But in a life-world so divided and alienated, we seem to exist in time
itself All of our assumptions and preconceptions proceed from that basis,
with the shape and force of time a pretty exact measure of the division and
alienation of that existence. Very much to the point is how closely our
notions of memory are tied to linear conceptions of time, as Frances Yates
brought out in The Art of Memory (1966).
Fanguage also has a deep impact on memory. With language
comes the turn toward mastery, as in naming. Spengler (1922) noted that
memory is "the capacity of storing for the understanding by means of
the name, the named." Fhe trajectory of domination is etched in
memory as it is everywhere else. Arthur J. Miller (1991) wrote of ancient
sacred knowledge rendered into text: "When memory became scripture, the
past was cast as linear narrative, delimiting the future within the scope of
Mnemosyne, or memory, was celebrated by the Greeks as the mother of
the muses, but the conversion of myth into written language extends a
debilitation begun by language itself. Kuberski (1992) goes so far as to say,
"this is the last stop of memory, when it becomes a text."
Fanguage takes on a life of its own, ending up in our current post-
modern condition in which, it is often averred, there is nothing left but
language. Words reduce and deform the experiences they symbolize; there
is no language that would represent memory without such modification.
Memories are resistant to being translated into words. Referring to the
clinical setting, Donald Spence (1982) observed a "perennial conflict facing
the patient between what is true and what is describable. "
Almost three hundred years ago, Vico counted imagination as one of
memory's three aspects. Gaston Bachelard (1964) provides contemporary
reflection on the relationship of memory and imagination, a connection
whose vitality should not be devalued. Meanwhile, Baudrillard repeatedly
assures us that we can no longer imagine a different world. To remember
and to see a better future are related faculties, their atrophy a mutual
Memory is not a matter of objects brought to consciousness but is a
part of the dynamics of consciousness (Rosenfield 1992). Wittgenstein
rejected the Fockean view of memory as a storehouse; Proust virtually
equated memory and perception in his notion of "involuntary"
memory. Of course, it can also be a form of conditioning, depending
upon the social environment and method (or lack thereof).
For Freud, memory occupied the entire psyche. But, he observed,
remembrance is made difficult due to repression of dangerous childhood
wishes and feelings. The Freudian thesis posits early sexuality as the seat of
all such charged emotional memories, though it can be read in a wider
sense. Enid Balint (1993) described a repression of memories more basic
than those of a sexual nature, involving reactions against the nature of a
young child's reality. Experiencing an incoherent world, the infant fails to
establish an acceptable view of it. "If the baby cannot build up such a world,
it may be because he cannot bear the dissimilarities he perceives (or the way
he is perceived), so his perceptions are disavowed.... these disavowals may
lead to complete loss of memory of the whole world in which unacceptable
perceptions were made." Fhe implications regarding memory and critique
Fhe original fragmentation and separation of humanity by the reifying
force of domestication has produced the idea that the psyche consists of
different parts functioning independently of each other and thus legitimately
considered independently. Neurology has been unable to determine where
and how memories exist in our brains; in fact, unlike computers, they seem
to have "no space at all allotted solely to memory" (Herbert 1993).
The misguided effort of science to "pin down" memory — or con-
sciousness in general — recalls Freud's rather contrary position in this
area. One of his most eccentric and generally ignored beliefs (1915) was
that the individual's memory reproduces an inherited recollection of the
entire human species. ]im Culbertson (1963, 1976, 1982) has argued
that consciousness, including memory, permeates all of nature and is
present even in its smallest parts. In an eccentricity that seems to
parallel Freud's, Culbertson claims that remembrance is not a repre-
sentation of that which is irretrievably past, but a partial re-experiencing
of the event itself. Recall involves a "clear-loop link" to the actual
moment in spacetime where the event is still eternally present. Fellow
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physicist Nick Herbert (1093) presents a similar, if slightly more con-
ventional, view of mind as pervasive and deeply embedded in nature.
But again, the meaning of memory is best fathomed in context, as
another site of struggle with domination. The ruling order seeks to enlist
memory as an ally in its never-ceasing will to legitimation. It must serve as
a mechanism of subjection, a means of sustaining hegemony. For our part,
we have striven, since the advent of civilization, to resist this colonization,
this shaping of memory's influence against us. Inherently contestatory,
memory must battle, for its integrity, the deodorizing effects of nostalgia
and the numbing of its vitality by routine.
Early on in the modern era Edmund Burke recognized the danger to the
established order represented by a clear recollection of changes in society.
Against such subversive memories he found custom to be an obscuring
factor, a potent contribution to authority.
From the beginning of the nineteenth century, roughly speaking, an
industrializing West decisively broke up old patterns of life and struggled
for complete control. Industrial capitalism depends upon mastery of both
public and private realms for its stability, and its proponents rather quickly
discovered the "inadequacy of available memory mechanisms" (Terdiman
1 993) for the totalizing needs of capital. The basic dynamics of modern
capital, however, provided the core answer to this challenge.
Exchange is as old as division of labor. Goods move and become
different as they circulate; memories are displaced and altered over time
via increasingly complex exchange relationships. Proceeding inseparably,
embedded in each other, technology and class society produce commodities
that are more and more reified and autonomous. Borrowing from Marx and
Lukacs, Richard Terdiman's attention to the memory crisis" of the 1 9th
century (1993) included reference to what he called "the frozen and
forgotten history of the object."
Once again, origins are of central importance in understanding our
present extremity. The development of the commodity mirrors the trajectory
of alienation itself, its beginnings always more clouded. Bordieu (1977)
called this suppression a "genesis amnesia." As with time, technology, and
other basics, the memory of the production of a world of commodities is
veiled from its consumers. The enigma of the
In Memon am
commodity is thus a memory disorder, one that becomes suppressed,
less troubling as the myth of progress grows by consumption.
Refusing the deflection of consciousness that progress is constantly
issuing, Herbert Marcuse looked rather in the opposite direction. He was
struck by the question of how past human suffering can be redeemed. "To
forget," he reasoned (1955), is "the mental faculty which sustains
submissiveness and renunciation.... Against this surrender to time, the
restoration of remembrance to its rights, as a vehicle of liberation, is
one of the noblest tasks of thought." It was in this vein that the Hungarian
writer Gyorgy Konrad referred (1992) to Eastern European dissidents as
almost alone upholding remembrance; the others must eliminate what they
failed to do: "Most people have an interest in losing memory."
Heidegger stressed the point that the past is irrecoverably absent, while his
student, Marcuse, saw that it is memory's ability to reverse the flow of time
that makes it a Utopian faculty. The repressed "remains unaltered by the
passage of time" (Freud 1933) as personally painful or traumatic episodes are
sealed from one's awareness. But Marcuse was alert to a similar repression of
pleasurable activities enacted and enforced by the needs of a pervasively
confining and immiserating society. "Forgetting past suffering and past joy
alleviates life under a repressive reality principle. In contrast, remembrance
spurs the drive for the conquest of suffering and the permanence of joy "
Today the Utopian hopes of Marcuse are definitely out of fashion. Our
postmodern era is one of cynicism and even despair, embodying, as Frederic
Jameson put it (1984), the "cultural logic of late capitalism." Human
yearnings are eclipsed by the cold strata of images and hypertechnology;
surface sensation, gadget titillation, jaded disinterest: increasingly a
landscape of cyborgs programmed by amnesia. Jameson's "Postmodernism
and Consumer Society" (1982) concluded that "Our entire contemporary
social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own
Jean-Francois Lyotard is a central postmodern thinker; characteris-
tically, there is no component of remembrance in his approach. The overall
picture of defeat, in fact, finds Lyotard denouncing memory for its use-value
to the system: like everything else, capital pulls memory into its orbit and
appropriates its functions (1973, 1989). Memory is
130 Running On Emptiness
explicitly condemned as a moment of theory, moreover, theory
being a foolish struggle against forgetfulness, as Christa Burger
aptly noted (1991).
Memory has not been plumbed deeply enough as indispensable
ally to theory. Adorno warned against a theory of origins and even
Marcuse failed to reach back far enough. Meanwhile, the all but
enveloping postmodern Zeitgeist is equally opposed to
remembering as to critical social theory.
The unthinking acceptance, indeed, "virtual worship of
technology" (Lash and Friedman, 1991) is an important PM
trait that is closely related to its deficiencies regarding memory
and theory. When technology is treated as a given (or worse, as a
favorable "natural" development), we find that human,
historical memory becomes supplanted by technology's
memory. An inevitable, unconscious contingency that is far
more trusted and relied upon than the kind it overrides, and
with an undeniable ideological force.
If the hidden or unexamined — the forgotten — exerts a domination
over us, the point of recollecting the past is to understand the force of its
implicit truth-claim upon the present. The cumulative weight of the past
"weighs like a nightmare" on the minds
gh of the living, wrote Marx.
To flee the past, so much of it — yes — but to know how and why
means, in large part, memory. Marx's contemporary, Melville, expressed a
dissent from the amnesia that was already gathering a century and a half
ago, in the wreck of the Pequod in Moby Dick. Ahab's final order to the
crew, to "sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool!", stands for
an evacuation of collective memory. But Ishmael, as he clings to the
coffin inscribed with "hieroglyphic marks" of exterminated races, disobeys.
"And I only am escaped alone to tell thee."
Until modern times the word memory extended across the vast
range of the Latin memor, "mindful," mens, "the mind," and all
the words that display the Indo-germanic roots men-, mon-, mn-,
words related to thinking, intending, and being conscious or
mindful in any way. The sense of memory was so broad as to
encompass both death and love, for example. "How paltry the
word memory has become since then!", in the judgment of Kroll
A technological context reduces memory to information
retrieval, with a tendency toward enlarged colonization of what is
sensual, lived. Virtual Reality is offered to an impoverished spirit;
memory implants may not be far off. Nostalgia, the other side
of the coin and mirror image of progress, appeals to the feeling
that the past offered pleasures no longer attainable. As Proust
put it, the only paradises are those we have lost.
If we can see that art, and culture itself, are symptoms of human
fragmentation, why is it impermissible to consider re-
establishing the unity which has been lost? Referring to the
ideal of living wholly in the present moment, futurologist John
Holmdahl once playfully proposed an "Amnesia Foundation"
toward that end. But to get there, we need not the
suppression of memory, but its realization and supersession.
Instrumental reason must be jettisoned along the way; perhaps
even dialectical thinking, still drawing on memory, can one day
be let go of, with new or unrecognizable senses and abilities
coming into play in lieu of so many layers of atrophy and
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WHY I HATE STAR TREK
The reigning cultural mythos, including its pseudo-oppositional currents, is
agreed on one thing: Star Trek is good for you. The vast popularity of this
impossibly weak, artificial, repressive series (actually there were three series, over
the past 25 years or so) is a puzzling and sad symptom of an absence of both
vitality and reflection. Of the many stupid but popular aspects of culture, few
have such a range of fans, such a range of possibilities for extending a little the
wave-lengths of control.
One could cite the translation of the original Star Trek series into no less
than 49 languages, the seemingly insatiable appetite for even the most obscure
Trek trivia on the part of a large subculture, and the burgeoning quantity of books,
movies, conventions, etc. that constitute a sizeable industry. But Star Trek got
my attention in a more personal way. A friend had a breakdown and discovered,
on his locked psychiatric ward, that Star Trek was prescribed viewing. At about
the same time I became aware that it is apparently also mandatory in the home
of neighbors of mine, a hippie/"alternative lifestyle" family that is otherwise
Even quite a few "anarchists" are, of their own volition, very
big Trek fans. Which brings to mind one of its most repulsive
features, its predication on a strict, martial hierarchy. ("Isn't that
One?") The order-giving/ order-taking military framework is
always present and constitutes the model of social reality, for
the crew is never seen in a different context. The evolution of
the program during its three incarnations is also worth noting,
for subtle shifts in this authoritarian model.
Captain Kirk, the original supreme leader, was a bit of a
cowboy, even a maverick in some very slight ways. But Captain
Riker, in series #2, "The Next Generation," is very much the
corporate boss, totally inseparable from his role as absolute
authority. And in a significant sense, even the dynamics or
movement of the whole operation comes to an end over time.
"Deep Space Nine," the third and final series, dispensed with
the Enterprise (so very aptly named for a deeply entrepreneurially-
spirited orientation) and takes place on a stationary space
platform. No more trek; corresponding perfectly to a world
where, since the collapse of bureaucratic state capitalism
beginning in the late 1980s, modern capital now dominates
What Star Trek conveys about technology is probably its most
insidious contribution to domination. Not only is a structure of
hierarchical orders a constant; so is the high-tech, anti-nature
foundation of the drama as a whole. Always at home in a sterile
container in which they represent society, the crew could not be
more cut off from the natural world. In fact, as the highest
development in the mastery and manipulation of nature, Star
Trek is really saying that nature no longer exists.
The android/computer Data, successor to Spock, is the central
figure in an episode that illustrates perfectly the elevation of the
machine. Data continually "experiences" disturbances that are
initially thought to be a sort of electrical malfunctioning in "his"
circuitry. Slowly the idea is introduced that "he" is actually
having dreams. Much warm and fuzzy emotion envelopes this
supposedly marvelous development, this triumph of
consciousness. Never mind that the message is more hideous
than uplifting. What we are seeing, by imputing human
feelings to technology, is a celebration of the very framework
that is debasing inner nature as it destroys outer nature. People
behaving more and more like machines while machines become
increasingly "human" is a horrible development not limited to
Star Trek, but certainly applauded and thereby advanced by it.
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Considered as an exercise in acting and characterization, Star
Trek is chillingly true to the reversal that the episode just cited
typifies. The glaring thing about ± t as drama is how lifeless and
plastic the characters are. In fact, they are so machine-like and
one-dimensional as to be virtually interchangeable. The Irish
actor Colm Mean t > ("Deep Space Nine") has turned in vibrantly
alive movie performances; in Star Trek he seemed to be in a
coma, devoid of life, Irish or otherwise. Maybe it is soothing for
some viewers to see so little going on on the part of non-
And this robot-like quality is, in turn, related to the decidedly anti-
sensual spirit of Trek reality. Intensification of technology as a
way of life is part of it, as is a sort of moral condemnation of
sex. This, too, is a constant, seen in the very texture of the
program. The uniforms are one example; they are never
dispensed with, and provide a cadet-like image, the stuff of
puerile fantasy. This parallels, on a slightly different level, the
current fascination in American society with angels, sexless and
benignly powerful. Overall, Star Trek is as sanitized and boring as
Barney or Walt Disney.
An episode of "The Next Generation" featuring Captain Picard
and the widow of his best friend exemplifies the anti-sexual theme.
While dodging aliens, in a long "action" sequence possessed of less
tension than that of a weak "B" western, they learn that
they've always been attracted to each other. Neither had
expressed such feelings, however, due to her married state, but
now they encounter each other unencumbered. It is made
perfectly clear that there is no reason whatsoever for them to
hold back, yet the tale ends with them bidding a wistful,
unconsummated farewell forever to the other. I cannot
imagine a script giving a more unqualified no to love: even
when there is not a reason in the galaxy to repress oneself, do it
Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek's creator, in case there's anyone on
earth who doesn't know it) was a police science/pre-law major in
his college days. After service in World War II, he joined the Los
Angeles Police Department. He next began writing scripts for
such television series as Highway Patrol and Dragnet.
Roddenberry's background as a liberal cop seems perfect as
guiding light for the TV phenomenon that, it could almost be
said, invented Political Correctness.
why I Hate star Trek
Women, gays, the disabled, minorities are treated
sympathetically on Star Trek, a not unusual corporate
television gesture. This minimum requirement should not
blind us to the slightly less obvious problems of content. Sadly,
Ursula LeGuin, considered by many a utopian/anarchist writer,
seemed to see little else besides Star Trek's PC rating in her
"Appointment with the Enterprise: an Appreciation," written for
the May 14, 1994 TV Guide. She gushed over the late series in
the classic superficiality of the liberal, managing to see a mar-
velous morality play, and ignoring its worship of authority and
a monstrous techno-future.
Good riddance to Star Trek!
With help from Marty Hichens
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PBS, POWER, AND POSTMODERNISM
The Public Broadcasting System produces "programming" toward a
more manageable society. In fact, it is the network rather expressly for
managers, and what it airs can best be understood by keeping in mind
this service to the managing class. The exact ratio of corporate to gov-
ernment funding of PBS is inconsequential to its basic nature and function.
Typically, it launders the image of oil giants and other corporate
uglies via their tax-deductible underwriting of high culture, such
as opera. Even more basically, it provides the illusion of an
"independent" source of information while enforcing the
dominant constraints as to what constitutes the acceptable or
reputable in ideas and information.
PBS is "innovative" in one real sense: as a consistent promoter of
the latest in high-tech impoverishment. Those who understand
the importance of the computerization of life— both Clinton and
Gingrich, for instance— realize the vital PBS contribution in this
area. Its completely neutered "environmentalism" never hints at
questioning the hierarchical organization of social existence which
daily generates the global ecocrisis. This "green" veneer serves, in
practice, as perfect accompaniment to the real goal, namely, the
highest "creative" productivity of capital.
PBS projects a superior code of diversity, tolerance and fairness,
under which the essentials of modern, bereft, commodified life
tinue unaffected. This pretense of a calm, confident, rational
social world is in stark contrast to the actual horrors and
dislocations, psychic and public, of a stricken society. Stately
British dramas like "Masterpiece Theater" further this soothing
overall tone of ruling class control. Small wonder that PBS
sponsors are so often management services, computer firms,
corporate lawyers and others whose explicit function is the running
of society in important capacities.
All this is fairly transparent and hardly new. More recent is
what seems to be a growing connection between PBS and the
prevailing culture of postmodernism. A self-promotion spot
highlights this nascent marriage between the managerial
hegemony PBS aspires to and the reigning cultural hegemony of
postmodernism. The text of the promo encompasses virtually
every important facet of the new PM creed, and it is easy to see
how it serves explicit control aims. PBS celebrates itself— and the
divided society it serves— in the same oath of allegiance:
Welcome to a place that is always just
beginning, that rouses itself day to day
and year to year to admire what it's
made, starting with nothing, then
rushes to invent itself all over again.
Ordinary people, doing extraordinary
things; knowing what goes on now goes
on to shape tomorrow.
Welcome to the land that is never
exactly what you think it is and will
never stay that way for long.
There are a million stories in the
streets of the cities we never finish
building. We intend to tell them all.
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The postmodern "death of the subject" announces the end of the
individual, dissolved in language. After the likes of Heidegger and
Lacan, it is language itself that does the talking, which
parallels the real: capital has swallowed up the human actor.
And so our text begins; it is "the place" which is the subject, not
This place is "always just beginning." A remarkably bald way of
expressing the postmodern refusal of history and of origins.
History, after all, is just so many arbitrary fictions; pick one— or,
more characteristically, don't even bother— they are equally
valid/invalid. As for origins, well, that's a bigger fool's errand yet.
There are no origins; things have always been this way.
Everything before this (media) moment is erased. This place is
"always just beginning."
And that is so admirable! This place "rouses itself"— in order "to
admire what it's made." This is the narcissism of a putrescent
society in love with itself, able to focus so admiringly with the
invaluable aid of know-nothing postmodernism. What it's made
of is never made clear. To enumerate the specifics of this empty
place, in all their terrifying emptiness, might tend to ground the
flight of this paean of admiration.
"Starting with nothing"— another reason to admire the
achievements of our "place." Here, too, is the embrace of an
almost total ignorance. Self-chosen ignorance at that, which is
so important to the fact of "postmodern culture" as oxymoron.
"Starting with nothing." Never mind the unsuspecting peoples
who had to be systematically sacrificed to enable the admirable
wonders of today. Never mind the wondrous part of this planet
that existed, naturally and freely, somehow prior to the glories
erected by this "place." "Starting with nothing." No blood on
Skipping over the innocuous second stanza, "Welcome to
the land that is never exactly what you think it is." Here is
another cardinal postmodern tenet: the pointlessness of
analysis. Meaning is an illusion, or, as the PM deconstructionists
say, "all interpretation is misinterpretation." In practice, the
corollary is, let the experts run things; their rule and technology
are inevitable and unfathomable, anyway. The Information
Society, the dream of managers and their PBS, "is never
exactly what you think it is." You are incapable, by definition,
of understanding your subjugation to power. So sit back, tube
out, and we'll perfect it.
PBS, Power, And Postmodernism
This land also "will never stay that way [the way you mistakenly
thought it was] for long." More classic postmodernism: ever-shifting
signification, undecidability. Of course it is fine that the situation is
both opaque and fluid: this guarantees your perpetual ignorance and
"The streets of the cities we never finish building." Capital and its high-
tech embodiment dwarf you, and never rest. This "place" goes on forever.
The contribution of postmodernism to PBS is inestimable, as this piece
of pure PM makes utterly clear.
Running On Emptiness
WHO IS CHOMSKY?
Noam Chomsky is probably the most well-known American anarchist,
somewhat curious given the fact that he is a liberal-leftist politically and
downright reactionary in his academic specialty of linguistic theory.
Chomsky is also, by all accounts, a generous, sincere, tireless activist,
which does not, unfortunately, confer his thinking with liberatory value.
Reading through his many books and interviews, one looks in vain
for the anarchist or any thorough critique. When asked point-blank,
"Are governments inherently bad?" his reply (28 January 1988) is no. He
is critical of government policies, not government itself, motivated by his
"duty as a citizen." The constant refrain in his work is a plea for democracy:
"real democracy," "real participation," "active involvement," and the like.
His goal is for "a significant degree of democratization," not the
replacement of political rule, albeit democratic rule, by a condition of
no rule called anarchy. Hardly surprising, then, that his personal prac-
tice consists of reformist, issues-oriented efforts like symbolic tax resist-
ance and ACLU membership. Instead of a critique of capital, its
forms, dynamics, etc., Chomsky calls (1992) for "social control over
investment. That's a social revolution." What a ridiculous assertion.
His focus, almost exclusively, has been on U.S. foreign policy, a
narrowness that would exert a conservative influence even for a radical
thinker. If urging increased involvement in politics goes against the
potentially subversive tide toward less and less involvement, Chomsky's
emphasis on statecraft in itself gravitates toward acceptance of states.
And completely ignoring key areas (such as nature and women, to mention
only two), makes him less relevant still.
In terms of inter-governmental relations, the specifics are likewise
disappointing. A principal interest here is the Middle East, and we see
anything but an anarchist or anti-authoritarian analysis. He has consistently
argued (in books like The Fateful Triangle, 1983) for a two-state solution to
the Palestinian question. A characteristic formulation: "Israel within its
internationally recognized borders would be accorded the rights of any state
in the international system, no more, no less." Such positions fit right into
the electoral racket and all it legitimizes. Along these lines, he singled out
(Voices of Dissent, 1992) the centrist Salvadoran politician Ruben Zamora
when asked whom he most admired.
Chomsky has long complained that the present system and its lap-
dog media have done their best, despite his many books in print, to
marginalize and suppress his perspective. More than a little ironic,
then, that he has done his best to contribute to the much greater mar-
ginalization of the anarchist perspective. He has figured in countless ads
and testimonials for the likes of The Nation, In These Times, and Z
Magazine, but has never even mentioned Anarchy, Fifth Estate, or other
anti-authoritarian publications. Uncritically championing the liberal-
left media while totally ignoring our own media can hardly be an acci-
dent or an oversight. In fact, I exchanged a couple of letters with him in
1982 over this very point (copies available from me). He gave a rather
non-sequitur, pro-left response and has gone right on keeping his public
back turned against any anarchy point of view.
Chomsky's newest book of interviews, Class Warfare, is promoted in
the liberal-left media as " accessible new thinking on the Republican
Revolution." It supposedly provides the answers to such questions as "Why,
as a supporter of anarchist ideals, he is in favor of strengthening the
federal government. " The real answer, painfully obvious, is that he is not
an anarchist at all.
Long a professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Tech-
nology, he achieved fame and fortune for his conceptions of the nature
at lanmiQap T*T"r\Ti=>cfc/~*'r rhnmcn/ cf^^c lanmionp ac a tivi=»H inniitp nort r\T
Running on Emptiness
some "essential human nature" (Barsamian 1992). Language develops
along an intrinsically determined path, very much like a physical
organ. In this sense, Chomsky says language "simply arose" (1988) and
that we should study it as "we study any problem in biology" (1978).
In other words, language, that most fundamental part of culture,
has no real relationship with culture and is a matter of instinct-driven
formation through biological specialization.
Here, as everywhere else, Chomsky cannot even seem to imagine
any problematics about origins of alienation or fundamental probmgs
about what symbolic culture really is, at base. Language for Chomsky is
a strictly natural phenomenon, quite unrelated to the genesis of human
culture or social development. A severely backward, non-radical per-
spective, not unrelated to his unwillingness — this "anarchist" of ours — to
put much else into question, outside of a very narrow political focus.
Lhe summer 1991 issue of Anarchy magazine included "A Brief
Interview with Noam Chomsky on Anarchy, Civilization, & Technol-
ogy." Not surprisingly, it was a rather strange affair, given the profes-
sor's general antipathy to all three topics. The subject of anarchy he
ignored altogether, consonant with his avoidance of it throughout the
years. Responding to various questions about civilization and technol-
ogy, he was obviously as uncomfortable as he was completely unpre-
pared to give any informed responses. Dismissive of new lines of thought
that critically re-examine the nature of civilization, Chomsky was
obviously ignorant of this growing literature and its influence in the
Concerning technology, he was, reluctantly, more expansive, but
just as in the dark as with the question of civilization. His responses
repeated all the discredited, unexamined pro-tech cliches, now less and
less credible among anarchists: technology as a mere tool, a "quite neutral"
phenomenon to be seen only in terms of specific, similarly unexamined
uses. Chomsky actually declares that cars are fine; it's only corporate
executives that are the problem. Likewise with robotics, as if that
drops from heaven and has no grounding in domination of
nature, division of labor, etc., etc. In closing, he proclaimed that "the
only thing that can possibly resolve environmental problems is
advanced technology." Yes: more of the soul-destroying, eco-destroying
malignancy that has created the current nightmare!
who is Chomsky?
In the fall of 1995 Chomsky donated much of the proceeds from
a well-attended speech on U.S. foreign policy to Portland's Freedom
and Mutual Aid center, better known as the local anarchist info-shop.
As if to honor its generous benefactor appropriately, the info-shop
spent the money first of all on a computer system, and several months
later financed a booklet promoting the info-shop and the ideas behind
it. Among the most prominent quotes adorning the pamphlet is one
that begins, "The task for a modern industrial society is to achieve
what is now technically realizable." The attentive reader may not need
me to name the author of these words, nor to point out this less than
qualitatively radical influence. For those of us who see our task as aiding in
the utter abolition of our "modern industrial society," it is repellent in the
extreme to find its realization abjectly celebrated.
In issues of The Progressive and Z Magazine during 1996 and 1997,
Chomsky has actually argued that no one should support a "devolution"
of Big Brother authority — a movement of power from
the federal government to state and local levels. This bankrupt and dis-
graceful "anarchist" (!) angle has been enough to create a furor among
even some of the utterly reformist partisans of those tepid mags.
Most of the above mainly belongs to the well-known, dreary,
superficial field of waning leftism, but more pernicious is its apparent
influence on those supposedly committed to the goal of anarchy.
Black & Red's latest (1997) offering is a reprint of Chomsky's
Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, which discusses the shockingly
novel and radical thesis that liberals have been known to conceal/distort
historical truth. The re -publication </ this piece of memorabilia was
assisted (and introduced) by individuals of Fifth Estate, which is itself in
decline by the measure of its growing leftist component. FE was once a
vibrant, cutting-edge project. Now its milieu in Detroit can find
nothing better than a thirty -year-old, already -published relic to give
expression to its meager resources.
Chomsky, like Bookchin, represents the failed inadequate critique
of the past, resolutely unwilling or unable to confront the enveloping
crisis on all levels. It is past time to go forward and engage the real depths
of the disaster facing all of us.
Running On Emptiness
'HAKIM BEY." POSTMODERN "ANARCHIST"
I've been getting increasingly annoyed by the word-salad posturing of
Bey and find "Primitives & Extropians" one of the weaker offerings yet
from this postmodern liberal. I will confine myself to some of the stand-out
dopiness from what is shot through with inaccuracies, evasions,
pontificating, ego-stroking, and shallowness.
On the level of content "P's & E's" is little short of absurd. He
pitches his piece, most basically, as a comparison of two viewpoints, "two
anarchist tendencies." But how even the most air-headed could make
the extreme techno-fascist imperialism of extropy into an "anarchist"
tendency is quite beyond me. In fact, it worships every hideous high-tech
manifestation of the total mastery of nature and the obliteration of
every trace of the sensual, autonomous individual. To quote from one of
its priests, Carnegie -Mellon' s Hans Moravec, "The final frontier will be
urbanized, ultimately into an arena where every bit of activity is a
meaningful computation: the inhabited portion of the universe will be
transformed into a cyberspace ... We might then be tempted to replace
some of our innermost mental processes with more cyberspace-appropriate
programs purchased from Artificial Intelligence, and so, bit by bit,
transform ourselves into something much like them. Ultimately our
thinking procedures could be totally liberated from any traces of our
original body, indeed of any body."
(Extropy, #10, 1993). To term something so viciously evil "anarchist"
suggests stupidity compounded by bad faith.
Bey's method is as appalling as his claims to truthfulness, and
essentially conforms to textbook postmodernism. Aestheticism plus
knownothingism is the PM formula; cynical as to the possibility of
meaning, allergic to analysis, hooked on trendy word-play, "Primi-
tivists & Extropians" displays these features exquisitely.
A point of view that tries to be a consistent, well-researched, tenta-
tive exploration is deemed absolutist, rigid, aggressive, the product of a
"presumptive vanguard of the pure." Bey, however, is inconsistent, messy,
open, impure, non-exclusive, etc. He elevates diversity, the multiplicity of
situations, the refusal of the world to conform to simple formulations. What
is galling is how stark and even nightmarish our situation really is, hip
verbiage aside. Frederic Jameson put it ably in his Seeds of Time (1994):
"How is it possible for the most standardized and uniform social reality
in history, by the merest ideological flick of the thumbnail ... to
reemerge as the rich oil-smear sheen of absolute diversity and of the
unimaginable and unclassifiable forms of human freedom?"
Bey completely buys into the PM illusion that society is too "complex"
to yield to any profound indictment. A further unveiling of our trendy
author reveals a liberal, whose "utopian" future might well include, he
discloses, "wrangling about 'acceptable emission standards' or forest
preservation." Further, "the human (animal/animate) scaling of economy
and technology — this, however untidy, I would call Utopia. " How basically
reformist! It is little wonder that Bey opens this whole mess of an article
by declaring that "the anarcho-primitivists have backed themselves into
a situation where they can never be satisfied without the total dissolution
of the totality."
A liberal like Bey has really no quarrel with the totality, whereas I
foolishly have thought that the threshold definition of a radical, of one
who yearns for a qualitative break with the whole deranged setup, is
precisely dissatisfaction with the totality .
More than half of this pathetic exercise is Bey peddling his patented
Temporary Autonomous Zone prescription. The TAZ "seems to be the
only manifestation of the possibility of radical conviviality," is bigger
than "mere ideas," is able to "reconcile the wilderness and
Running On Emptiness
cyberspace ... in fact, has already done so." Reads to me like it is Bey
who advances his candidacy for Absolute Rightness, not those who seek,
in an anti-ideological and visionary spirit, to learn from our origins and
identify the basics, in reality, of our deep imprisonment. Liberatory
analysis and practice have, I would say, far better chances for success
from clear thinking and unlimited desire than from stylistic mantras about
the glories of inconsistency and hip-sounding, three-word solutions in
CITY OF LIGHT
Pigs will be pigs. You've got to wonder about anyone who'd choose to
be one. Just as you have to wonder how many people chose/choose not
to know that Rodney King beatings happen every day.
But the 1992 insurrection in L.A. was not fundamentally about
the latest high-profile police atrocity, nor was it mainly a matter of race
relations. Of course, the media worked overtime to argue otherwise,
endlessly showing a white trucker being beaten by blacks, in order to
equate him with Rodney King and trivialize the whole matter. Pushing
most of the story out of the way, this tactic says, one "brutal and senseless"
act cancels the other and things are not really that bad, except for
such behavior. As if excesses committed by a population enraged beyond
measure are the same as a calculated, vicious act by those who are not.
More importantly, what is truly "brutal and senseless" is remaining
passive about systematic degradation and not rising Lipwrathfully.
The media "coverage" was simply outrageous. Almost none of it
hesitated to openly take sides against the slave revolt and array every
kind of oppositional thinking against it. An outbreak that cost some
60 lives, burned and looted 5,000 businesses to the tune of $1
billion, and required 8,500 troops and countless cops from all over
Southern California to contain, was attributed to a few "hoodlums
Running On Emptiness
and opportunists" — an incredible lie in itself. All media attention
seemed to turn to politicians and church leaders — for their help in
denouncing the events unfolding, those cops who speak for the very
few. The media behavior only reminds one that its job is always to
advertise the culture defined by the commodity and its rules (viz.
On May 1st a group of German anarchists in Berlin unfurled a
banner declaring their solidarity with the people of Los Angeles and
attacked a nearby group of neo-Nazis. In a radio interview May 6th,
permitted safely after the fact, sociologist Harry Edwards pointed out
that what happened "was not a black vs. white thing. Everyone was
out in the streets, old and young and every color." He also made it
clear that people with jobs took part, including employees who destroyed
their employers' businesses. So much for the vain hope of capital that
investment in new businesses will create social peace.
The noting was not confined to the ghetto. In LA., it spread to
downtown, Westwood, mid-Wilshire and Hollywood, as desert-cam-
ouflaged armor guarded shopping malls for nearly 50 miles in every
direction. The violence could not be isolated in South Central Los Angeles
any more than the depth of alienation can that exists all across this
rotting culture. The decline of voting to depths that challenge the very
legitimacy of a phoney representation is one excellent example.
Those who wish to remain slaves as every authentic aspect of society,
and nature along with it, are looted every day still summon up their
defenses of slavery. Others, everywhere, who will not suppress their
anger, their passion to live, find an inspiration in the explosion of those
whose pride and dignity could not be suppressed. As Marc Fumaroli put it
earlier this year, "the new generation is now discovering that the state
of being a consumer, and above all a 'cultural' consumer, is the most
humiliating and deceptive of all."
WE ALL LIVE IN WACO
The quest for authenticity and community, completely denied and ren-
dered desperate, finds its home in Jonestown and Waco. The sense of truly
being alive and of belonging has almost nowhere to go in the society whose
two fastest growing classes are the homeless and prisoners. Daily existence
is increasingly that of despair, depression, and derangement, punctuated by
news of the latest serial murder spree or global ecodisaster, consumed as
horrible entertainments in the emptiness.
Debord expressed the situation accurately: "It should be known that
servitude henceforth truly wants to be loved for itself, and no longer
because it would bring some extrinsic advantage. Previously, it could pass
for a protection; but it no longer protects anything." Even the apparatus
of oppression concedes virtually the same point: Forbes, organ of finance
capital, commemorated its 75th anniversary with a cover-story theme of
"Why We Feel so Bad when We Have it so Good." In the Psychological
Society at large, in which the only reality is the personal, its hallmark
denial and delusion are challenged, almost ironically, by the definitively
impoverished realm of the personal. More and more clearly, the choice
is between craven servitude or a qualitative break with the entire force-
field of alienation.
In a cult everything that an individual has is invested, the only
guarantee against the total refusal of that cult. How else, for example,
Running On Emptiness
could it be endured that wives and children were offered up to David
Koresh and blind submission obtained rather than revolt? Evidently
autonomy and self-respect can be freely given over when the world so
thoroughly devalues them.
None of us is immune from the horrors, commonplace and spec-
tacular; the immune system itself, in fact, seems to be giving way, and
this is not confined to AIDS or TB. The stress of work, according to a
March report of the UN's International Labor Organization, is advanc-
ing to the point of a "worldwide epidemic." The overall situation is gravely
worse than when Nietzsche observed that "most people think that
nothing but this wearying reality of ours is possible. "
Current reality has become impossible and continues to lose credi-
bility. We must be outsiders, never represented, investing nothing in the
death march we are expected to help reproduce. The ultimate pleasure lies
in destroying that which is destroying us, in the spirit of the
Situationists, who, when asked how they were going to destroy the
dominant culture, replied, "In two ways: gradually at first, then sud-
Technogogues and technopaths we have had with us for some time.
The Artificial Intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, for instance, was well-
known in the early 1980s for his description of the human brain as "a
three -pound computer made of meat." He was featured in the December
1 983 issue of Psychology Today, occasioning the following letter:
With the wholly uncritical treatment — nay, giddy embrace — of
high technology, even to such excrescences as machine "emotions"
which you develop and promote, Psychology Today has at least made
it publicly plain what's intended for social life.
Your dehumanizing work is a prime contribution to high tech's
accelerating motion toward an ever more artificial, de-individuated,
I believe I am not alone in the opinion that vermin such as you
will one day be considered among the worst criminals this century
Running On Emptiness
A dozen years later the number of those actively engaged in the
desolation of the soul and the murder of nature has probably risen, but
support for the entire framework of such activity has undoubtedly
Enter Unabomber (he/she/they) with a critique, in acts as well as
words, of our sad, perverse, and increasingly bereft technological exis-
tence. Unabomber calls for a return to "wild nature" via the "complete
and permanent destruction of modern industrial society in every part
of the world," and the replacement of that impersonal, unfree, and alienated
society by that of small, face-to-face social groupings. He has killed, three
and wounded 23 in the service of this profoundly radical vision.
There are two obvious objections to this theory and practice. For
one thing, a return to undomesticated autonomous ways of living
would not be achieved by the removal of industrialism alone. Such removal
would still leave domination of nature, subjugation of women, war,
religion, the state, and division of labor, to cite some basic social
pathologies. It is civilization itself that must be undone to go where
Unabomber wants to go. In other words, the wrong turn for humanity
was the Agricultural Revolution, much more fundamentally than the
In terms of practice, the mailing of explosive devices intended for
the agents who are engineering the present catastrophe is too random.
Children, mail carriers, and others could easily be killed. Even if one
granted the legitimacy of striking at the high-tech horror show by ter-
rorizing its indispensable architects, collateral harm is not justifiable.
Meanwhile, Unabomber operates in a context of massive psychic
immiseration and loss of faith in all of the system's institutions. How
many moviegoers, to be more specific, took issue with Terminator 2 and
its equating of science and technology with death and destruction?
Keay Davidson's "A Rage Against Science" (San Francisco Examiner,
April 30, 1995) observed that Unabomber's "avowed hatred of science
and technological trends reflects growing popular disillusionment with
A noteworthy example of the resonance that his sweeping critique of
the modern world enjoys is "The Evolution of Despair" by Robert Wright,
cover story of Time for August 28, 1995. The long article discusses
Unabomber's indictment soberly and sympathetically, in an effort to
plumb "the source of our pervasive sense of discontent. "
At the same time, not surprisingly, other commentators have
sought to minimize the possible impact of such ideas. "Unabomber
Manifesto Not Particularly Unique" is the dismissive summary John
Schwartz provided for the questioning of society, as if anything like
that goes on in classrooms. Ellul, Juenger and others with a negative
view of technology are far from old hat; they are unknown, not a part
of accepted, respectable discourse. The cowardice and dishonesty, typical of
professors and journalists could hardly be more clearly represented.
Also easily predictable has been the antipathy to Unabomber-type
ideas from the liberal-left. "Unabummer" was Alexander Cockburn's near-
hysterical denunciation in The Nation, August 28/September 4, 1995.
This pseudo-critic of U.S. capitalism rants about Unabomber's "homicidal
political nuttiness," the fruit of an "irrational" American anarchist tradition.
Cockburn says that Unabomber represents a "rotted-out romanticism of
the individual and nature," that nature is gone forever and we'd better
accept its extinction. In reply to this effort to vilify and marginalize
both Unabomber and anarchism, Bob Black points out (unpublished letter
to the editor) the worldwide resurgence of anarchism and finds
Unabomber expressing "the best and the predominant thinking in
contemporary North American anarchism, which has mostly gotten
over the workerism and productivism which it too often used to share
with Marxism. "
In spring '95 Earth First! spokesperson Judi Bari labeled Unabomber a
"sociopath," going on to declare, definitively but mistakenly, that
"there is no one in the radical environmental movement who is calling
for violence." This is not the place to adequately discuss the politics of
radical environmentalism, but Bari's pontificating sounds like the voice
of the many anarcho-liberals who wish to go no further in defense of
the wild than tired, ineffective civil disobedience, and who brandish
such timid and compromised slogans as "no deforestation without
The summer '95 issue of Slingshot, tabloid of politically correct
Berkeley militants, contained a brief editorial trashing Unabomber for
creating "the real danger of government repression" of the radical
Running on Emptiness
milieu. The fear that places blame on Unabomber overlooks the simple
fact that any real blows against the Megamachine will invite responses
from our enemies. The specter of repression is most effectively ban-
ished by doing nothing.
For their part, the "anarchists" of Love and Rage (August/Septemher
1995) have also joined the anti-Unabomber leftist chorus. Wayne
Price's "Is the Unabomber an Anarchist?" concedes, with Bob Black,
that "most anarchists today do not regard the current development of
industrial technology as 'progressive' or even 'neutral,' as do Marxists
and liberals." But after giving this guarded lip-service to the ascen-
dancy of Unabomber-like ideas, Price virulently decries Unabomber as
"a murderer dragging noble ideas through the mud" and withholds
even such political and legal support that he would accord authoritar-
ian leftists targeted by the state. Love and Rage is defined by a heavy-
handed, manipulative organize-the-masses ideology; approaches that are
more honest and more radical are either ignored or condemned by
But this selective mini-survey of opposition to Unabomber does not
by any means exhaust the range of responses. There are other perspectives,
which have mainly, for obvious reasons, been expressed only privately.
Some of us, for one thing, have found a glint of hope in the public
appearance, at last, of a challenge to the fundamentals of a depraved
landscape. In distinction to the widespread feeling that everything
outside of the self is beyond our control, the monopoly of lies has been
broken. It might be said that Unabomber's (media) impact is here
today, only to be forgotten tomorrow. But at least a few will have been
able to understand and remember. The irony, of course, is that lethal
bombings were necessary for an alternative to planetary and individual
destruction to be heard.
The concept of justice should not be overlooked in considering
the Unabomber phenomenon. In fact, except for his targets, when
have the many little Eichmanns who are preparing the Brave New World
ever been called to account? Where is any elemental personal
responsibility when the planners of our daily and global death march
act with complete impunity?
The ruling order rewards such destroyers and tries to polish their
image. The May 21, 1995 New York Times Magazine's "Unabomber
and David Gelerntner" humanizes the latter, injured by a Unabomber
bomb at Yale, as a likable computer visionary preparing a "Renaissance
of the human spirit." From no other source than the article itself, however,
it is clear that Gelerntner is helping to usher in an authoritarian
dystopia based on all the latest high-tech vistas, like genetic engineering.
Is it unethical to try to stop those whose contributions are bring-
ing an unprecedented assault on life? Or is it unethical to just accept
our passive roles in the current Zeitgeist of postmodern cynicism and
know-nothingism? Asa friend in California put it recently, when
justice is against the law, only outlaws can effect justice.
The lengthy Unabomber manuscript will go undiscussed here; its
strengths and weaknesses deserve separate scrutiny. These remarks mainly
shed light on some of the various, mostly negative commentary rather
than directly on their object. It is often the case that one can most
readily learn about society by watching its reactions, across the spectrum, to
those who would challenge it.
"Well, I believe in FC/Unabomber — it's all over the country ...
his ideas are, as the situationists said, 'in everyone's heads'; it's just a
matter of listening to your own rage," from a Midwesterner in the
know. Or as Anne Eisenberg, from Polytechnic University in Brook-
lyn, admitted, " Scratch most people and you'll get a Luddite. "
And from the Boulder Weekly, Robert Perkinson's July 6, 1 995
column sagely concluded: "Amidst the overwhelming madness of
unbridled economic growth and postmodern disintegration, is such
nostalgia, or even such rage, really crazy? For many, especially those who
scrape by in unfulfilling jobs and peer longingly toward stars obscured by
beaming street lights, the answer is probably no. And for them, the
Unabomber may not be a psychopathic demon. They may wish FC the
best of luck."
1 5 6
unning On Emptiness
Worth noting is a concise article in the March 4, 1993 issue of the
British journal Nature. Almost 4,000 years of agriculture in central Mexico
yield a dramatic picture to the research efforts of archaeologists O'Hara,
Street-Perrot, and Burt. Conclusively debunked is the notion that
traditional farming methods were more benign that more modern methods.
Severe soil erosion and other forms of environmental degradation
commenced, in fact, with agriculture itself. By the time of the Spanish
conquest (1521 A.D.), contrary to widespread belief, Mesoamerica presented
anything but a pristine landscape. "Erosion caused by the Spanish
introduction of plough agriculture," the authors observe from exhaustive
soil samples, "was apparently no more severe than that associated with
traditional agricultural methods." As they explain later in the article, "it is
hard to distinguish any specific impact of the introduction of plough
agriculture and draught animals by the Spanish after AD. 1521 ."
The point is plain: domestication is domestication, and embodies a
qualitatively negative logic for the natural world. Agriculture per se brings a
ruinous, unidirectional impact, despite the wishful thinking of those
who envision a coexistence with domestication, consisting of benign,
"green" methods that would reverse the global destruction of the land.
The devastation exists on a much more basic level, whose reality
must be faced. As the article concludes, "There is a move by many
environmental agencies both in Mexico and elsewhere for a return to
traditional forms of agriculture, as they are considered to be better for
the environment. As our findings indicate that traditional farming
techniques cause significant erosion, it is unlikely that a return to pre-
historic farming methods would solve the problem of environmental
Running On Emptiness
WE HAVE To DISMANTLE ALL THIS
The unprecedented reality of the present is one of enormous sorrow
and cynicism, "a great tear in the human heart," as Richard Rodriguez
put it. A time of ever-mounting everyday horrors, of which any news-
paper is full, accompanies a spreading environmental apocalypse.
Alienation and the more literal contaminants compete for the leading
role in the deadly dialectic of life in divided, technology -ridden society.
Cancer, unknown before civilization, now seems epidemic in a society
increasingly barren and literally malignant.
Soon, apparently, everyone will be using drugs; prescription and
illegal becoming a relatively unimportant distinction. Attention Deficit
Disorder is one example of an oppressive effort to medicalize the rampant
restlessness and anxiety caused by a life -world ever more shriveled and
unfulfilling. The ruling order will evidently go to any lengths to deny
social reality; its techno-psychiatry views human suffering as chiefly
biological in nature and genetic in origin.
New strains of disease, impervious to industrial medicine, begin to
spread globally while fundamentalism (Christian, Judaic, Islamic) is
also on the rise, a sign of deeply -felt misery and frustration. And here
at home New Age spirituality (Adorno's "philosophy for dunces") and
the countless varieties of "healing" therapies wear thin in their delu-
sional pointlessness. To assert that we can be whole/enlightened/healed
within the present madness amounts to endorsing the madness.
The gap between rich and poor is widening markedly in this land
of the homeless and the imprisoned. Anger rises and massive denial,
cornerstone of the system's survival, is now at least having a troubled
sleep. A false world is beginning to get the amount of support it deserves:
distrust of public institutions is almost total. But the social landscape seems
frozen and the pain of youth is perhaps the greatest of all. It was
recently announced (10/94) that the homicide rate among young men
ages 15 to 19 more than doubled between 1985 and 1991. Teen
suicide is the response of a growing number who evidently cannot
imagine maturity in such a place as this.
The overwhelmingly pervasive culture is a fast-food one, bereft of
substance or promise. As Dick Hebdige aptly judged, "the postmodern
is the modern without the hopes and dreams that made modernity
bearable." Postmodernism advertises itself as pluralistic, tolerant, and non-
dogmatic. In practice it is a superficial, fast-forward, deliberately confused,
fragmented, media-obsessed, illiterate, fatalistic, uncritical excrescence,
indifferent to questions of origins, agency, history or causation. It
questions nothing of importance and is the perfect expression of a setup
that is stupid and dying and wants to take us with it.
Our postmodern epoch finds its bottom-line expression in con-
sumerism and technology, which combine in the stupefying force of
mass media. Attention-getting, easily-digested images and phrases dis-
tract one from the fact that this horror-show of domination is precisely
held together by such entertaining, easily digestible images and
phrases. Even the grossest failures of society can be used to try to nar-
cotize its subjects, as with the case of violence, a source of endless
diversion. We are titillated by the representation of what at the same
time is threatening, suggesting that boredom is an even worse torment
Nature, what is left of it, that is, serves as a bitter reminder of how
deformed, non-sensual, and fraudulent is contemporary existence. The
death of the natural world and the technological penetration of every
sphere of life, what is left of it, proceed with an accelerating impetus.
Wired, Mondo 2000, zippies, cyber-everything, virtual reality, Artificial
Intelligence, on and on, up to and including Artificial Life, the ultimate
Meanwhile, however, our "post-industrial" computer age has resulted in the
fact that we are more than ever "appendages to the machine," as the 19th
century phrase had it. Bureau of Justice statistics (7/94), by the way,
report that the increasingly computer-surveilled workplace is now the
setting for nearly one million violent crimes per year, and that the
number of murdered bosses has doubled in the past decade.
This hideous arrangement expects, in its arrogance, that its victims will
somehow remain content to vote, recycle, and pretend it will all be
fine. To employ a line from Debord, "The spectator is simply supposed
to know nothing and deserve nothing. "
Civilization, technology, and a divided social order are the components
of an indissoluble whole, a death-trip that is fundamentally hostile to
qualitative difference. Our answer must be qualitative, not the
quantitative, more-of-the-same palliatives that actually reinforce what
we must end.
HE MEANS IT-DO YOU?
Today opposition is anarchist or it is non-existent. This is the barest
minimum coherence in the struggle against an engulfing totality.
And while ten years ago the milieu generally called anti-authoritarian
was largely syndicalist, those leftist residues are fading out altogether. Very
few now find a vista of work and production at all liberatory.
As the smell of this false and rotting order rises to the heavens, registering
an unprecedented toll on all living beings, faith in the whole modern
world evaporates. Industrialism and its ensemble looks like it has been a
very bad idea, sort of a wrong turn begun still earlier. Civilization itself,
with its logic of domestication and destruction, seems untenable.
After all, is there anyone who is happy in this desolation?
Lovely new indicators of how it is panning out include increasing self-
mutilation among the young and murder of children by their own
parents. Somehow a society that is steadily more impersonal, cynical, de-
skilled, boring, artificial, depressing, suicide -prompting, used up, drug-
ridden, ugly, anxiety -causing and futureless brings a questioning as to
why it has come to this/what's it all about.
Leftism with its superficial program is nearly extinct. Its adherents
have folded their tents of manipulation and, in some cases, moved on
to far more interesting adventures.
Running On Emptiness
Anarchism, if not yet anarchy, is the only scene going, even if the blackout
on the subject is still in effect. As if to match the accelerating
decomposition of society and displacement of life at large, determined
resistance is also metamorphosing with some rapidity. The rout of the
left, following the swiftly declining prestige of History, Progress, and
techno-salvation, is only one development. The old militants, with
their ethic of sacrifice and order, their commitment to economy and
exchange, are already fixed on the museum shelves of partial revolt.
Enter the Unabomber and a new line is being drawn. This time the
bohemian schiz-fluxers, Green yuppies, hobbyist anarcho-journalists,
condescending organizers of the poor, hip nihilo-aesthetes and all the
other "anarchists" who thought their pretentious pastimes would go on
unchallenged indefinitely — well, it's time to pick which side you're on.
It may be that here also is a Rubicon from which there will be no
Some, no doubt, would prefer to wait for a perfect victim. Many
would like to unlearn what they know of the invasive and unchal-
lenged violence generated everywhere by the prevailing order — in order
to condemn the Unabomber' s counter-terror.
But here is the person and the challenge before us.
Anarchists! One more effort if you would be enemies of this long
how Ruinous DOES
IT HAVE TO GET?
Recent developments make an all-encompassing crisis plain to see.
Society could scarcely be more bizarrely unhealthy, but is getting even
more so all the time.
With two million people behind bars, kids as young as two are on behavior
control drugs like Ritalin. Sunset magazine carries pages of ads for
"boot camps." "Got an angry child?" "Defiant teen?"
A recent national study disclosed that emotional disorders among
children have more than doubled in the past 20 years. Homicidal out-
bursts at school, as deeply shocking as they are, correspond to murder-
ous rampages at work or at Burger King. Meanwhile, the trend toward
year-round schooling feeds into the current prospect of a lifetime of
more and more hours at work.
Last November a U.S. News & World Report survey announced that
over 90 percent of students cheat. No surprise, where a similarly high
percentage of citizens feel cymcism/no confidence concerning most of
the ruling institutions.
Youthful smoking is on the rise; so are binge drinking, and health-
threatening obesity. And as with adults, kids' levels of anxiety, stress,
isolation, and boredom are going up. TV fare is shock- and peep-show
tabloid-oriented for the increasingly jaded. USA Today for
Running On Emptiness
July 18 pondered "Why America is so short-tempered," as road rage
erupts and parents get violent — to the point of murder — at Little
It was recently reported that drug abuse and addiction in Oregon went
up 232 percent from 1995 to 1999. On the national level, one out of
every three people say they have felt close to a nervous breakdown at
some point, according to a study released in early July. Lhe assortment of
"healing" and alternative therapy approaches multiplies, perhaps in
proportion to a massive and pervasive denial of the root causes of all
the suffering and estrangement.
Meanwhile, afflictions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia
debilitate many; no specific causes can be found. It is as if a growing
number of people are simply becoming allergic to society itself.
So many are now taking pharmaceutical drugs (e.g. antidepressants)
that they now constitute a significant pollutant. An April issue of
Science News reported this new form of contamination of water and soil.
Lhus we now see immiseration in the personal and social spheres meeting
up with the impoverishment of our physical environment. A graphic
suggestion that the pain and emptiness felt by human subjects of capital and
technology is connected to the ongoing destruction of nature (global
warming, accelerating species extinction, oceans dying, etc.).
If the salaried thinkers of the dominant emptiness largely continue
to ignore the glaring fact of engulfing alienation, the word is definitely
beginning to spread nonetheless. Lhere is an alternative consciousness:
for example, in the anti-culture of hundreds of underground, do-it-
yourself zines and pirate radio projects. And it is even showing up
above ground, in films like Matrix and Fight Club, in novels like Alan
Lightman's The Diagnosis, and in the work of Bret Easton Ellis. Cri-
tique is making itself felt in many areas.
A culture this bereft cannot long sustain itself. Especially if we are
equal to the task of demolishing it in favor or life, health, freedom,
HOW POSTMODERNISM GREASES
THE RAILS FOR THE CYBORG FUTURE
The reigning, pervasive cultural ethos is postmodern, with its sharply
narrowed ambitions concerning thought, its tendency to shade into the
It began in large part as French reaction against the grand and total
claims of Marxism. Emerging and spreading about 20 years ago, in a
period of reaction with almost no social movements, postmodernism
bears the imprint of a period of conservatism and lowered expectations. It
is also already a result of the "cyborg" society in which a technical
imperative tends to subsume or co-opt alternatives.
Postmodernism tells us that we can't grasp the whole, indeed that
the desire for an overview of what's going on out there is unhealthy and
suspect, even totalitarian. I don't argue specifically with postmodernism's
rejection of Marxism. We have seen, after all, how grand systems —
"metanarratives," as they are fashionably referred to — have proven
oppressive rather than liberatory .
Skeptical about the claims and results of previous systems of
thought, postmodernism has in fact jettisoned pretty nearly all desire
or hope of making sense of reality as we experience it. PM abandons
the "arrogance" of trying to figure out the origins, logic, causality, or
structure of the world we live in.
Running on Emptiness
Instead, postmodernists focus on surfaces, fragments, margins. Reality
is too shifting, complex, indeterminate to decipher or judge. Too
"messy," too "interesting" to allow for fixed conclusions, as Donna
Haraway puts it in her well-known "Cyborg Manifesto."
Meaning and value are old-fashioned illusions, and so is the practice of
writing with clarity. The postmodern style is notorious for its word
play, dense language games, and fondness for contradiction. To cite
Haraway 's "Cyborg Manifesto" again, she concedes that "the main trouble
with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of
militarism and patriarchal capitalism" — but that in no way dims her
enthusiasm for a cyborg (part human, part machine), high tech future!
Shared experience and direct experience are two major casualties of an
increasingly techmfied society. But Haraway and the postmodern crowd in
general are uncritical of the techno imperative that is so rampantly
gaining ground and leaching away what little quality and texture is
left in our everyday lives. Of course, once one renounces any attempt to
comprehend the overall situation, the door is wide open for technology and
capital to fill the vacuum. Things grow stark and menacing in every
sphere, but conclusions are to be avoided.
Postmodernism celebrates evanescent flows, a state of no boundaries,
the transgressive. In the actual world, however, this translates as an
embrace of the unimpeded movement of capital, the experience of
consumer novelty . As the dimensions of personal robusticity and social
interaction steadily erode, along with meaning and value, a consumer
society in cyberspace becomes the uncontested next stage of human
Postmodernism gives up on understanding how and why the cyborg future
is overtaking us. Division of labor, domestication, the nature of
technology — not to mention less abstract factors like drudgery,
toxicity, the steady destruction of nature — are integral to the high-tech
trajectory. Of no concern, evidently, to postmodernists, who continue
to cling to the subtle, the tentative, the narrowly focused.
Virtual reality is an example that mirrors the postmodern fascination
with surfaces, explicitly rejoicing in its own depthlessness — one obvious
way in which it is the accomplice of the Brave New World development.
No challenge there, no challenge even plausible in the
How Postmodernism Greases The Rails For The cyborg Future
collapse and refusal of the possibility of understanding the totality. The
political counterpart of postmodernism is pragmatism, the tired liber-
alism that accommodates itself to the debased norm.
The decay of meaning, passion, inner vibrancy has been going on
for a while. Max Weber spoke of disenchantment, for instance. But
postmodernism is the culture of no resistance to this juggernaut. The
good news is that there are signs of life, signs that folks in various places
are refusing a cyborg future.
Running On Emptiness
So . . . How Did You
BECOME A ANARCHIST ?
I was one of the Baby Boom generation's first arrivals, born in Salem,
Oregon two years before the end of World War II. My parents and my
older sister Jackie had moved to Oregon from Nebraska in 1940, looking
for a break from tough times in the Midwest of the Great Depression.
Before they came west, Dad worked at a gas station six, and every other
week, seven days a week. Getting by was not easy. Dreadful winters and
not always enough food for three.
The times were less precarious when John and Lorene — both of Bohemian
forbears as far back as anyone knew — and their nine-year-old daughter
started over on the West Coast. The prospect of war was spurring the
economy. Hard times were ending in most places. I showed up in 1943;
my brother Jim a month after World War II ended, two years later.
Married in 1929 and having endured a decade of Depression, my
folks were among many who feared that war's end would mean
another economic downturn. But Cold War military spending pre-
cluded the return of lean years, and instead helped kick off the consumer-
spending economic expansion of the '50s. I grew up in those years, in a
fairly typical small-town, Catholic, nuclear family world, within the larger
world of new things like TV, the H-bomb, freeways,
and a mainly unexamined, triumphalist U.S. world view. I can
remember — it must have been 1952 — bicycling around the
neighborhood with a pack of friends shouting "We Like Ike!" And
around that age, maybe ten, fearing and hating "communists." We had
by this time moved from Salem to nearby Woodburn, an even smaller
town, quite an unlikely place to have found any Reds.
My first baby step away from the conformist know-nothingism of the
rabidly all-American '50s was to become a strong Adlai Stevensonfor-
President supporter in 1956. In what way, if any, he was different from
Eisenhower (who drubbed him in 1952 and 1956) I couldn't have said.
But I think this enthusiasm was a slight stirring, clueless as it was.
By the mid-'50s both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. possessed nuclear weapons,
so strategic competition became focused on missile development — the
Space Race. The enforced political orthodoxy was buttressed by a major
emphasis on science and technology. Boys were encouraged to devote
themselves to these pursuits, in the national interest. In 1957 the Soviets
launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. Their achievement intensified
the American focus on math, sciences, engineering, and the like.
Ron, Steve, and I were in the 7th and 8th grades at this time. Caught up in
the prevailing atmosphere, we were young science nerds with our own
version of competitive experimentation. We'd gone from chemistry sets to
the construction of small bombs, thanks to materials ordered from
chemical supply companies. A pound of sulphur cost $1.00, easily
affordable even with our meager allowances. Magnesium wire was more
expensive, and was paid for by our summer work as harvesters in the fields
near Woodburn. One of our pastimes was coming up with gunpowder-
like compounds. We competed to see whose compound would oxidize
fastest while leaving the smallest noncombustible traces. Whoever was least
efficient was dubbed that week's "Residue King." I recall that Steve was
usually the mocked monarch. When we entered high school, we left
our interest in explosives behind. Plus the fact that my dad came
across the container for our biggest effort yet, and confronted me
about it. He wasn't angry, but rather shaken, grasping how much
destruction we could have unleashed.
Running on Emptiness
After eight years at St. Luke's School I got a further four years at the
hands of Benedictines in Mount Angel, just about ten miles from
Woodburn. Hands were literally involved at Mt. Angel Prep, where
priests frequently resorted to physical punishment. High school at this
small, boys-only place next to a monastery was essentially medieval.
Along with Latin and Church History, the teachers had the divine
right to clock you whenever they lost their tempers, and promoted brutality
among the fairly rowdy student body. Juniors and seniors were
encouraged to shave the heads of any freshman or sophomores caught
smoking on the school grounds, and for greater or repeated infractions
there was the "belt line." This meant that the malcontent had to run a
school assembly gauntlet, whipped by the belts of all students. Those
who didn't participate were forced to run the gauntlet in turn.
To gam acceptance, I played football until my senior year. The Friday night
games really weren't bad. I was far from being an accomplished player, but
the games were a picnic compared to practices. By my senior year I'd
become "one of the guys" and decided to forego a last season of
afternoon torture. At that point it wasn't worth the daily afternoon ordeal of
I mainly stayed out of trouble until just before graduating, when a
couple of the holy Fathers discovered that their A- student had been
less the model character than they'd thought. I got whacked in the face
a few times for my minor troublemaking.
Apparently somewhat like another bright little bomb-maker at the time —
Ted Kaczynski in Illinois — fitting in was not always easy. I did have
some close friends, but generally felt out of place and confused by many
prevailing norms. I have a vivid recollection even now of watching the
popular late '50s sitcom, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." Certainly
there wasn't anything even slightly adventurous (or funny) about this
family of zombies, and the tinny, canned laughter made me feel uneasy
and left out. Ricky Nelson, Ozzie and Harriet's younger son, was the
program's teen heartthrob, while I had no idea at all what to say to girls.
Very slow in this area for some time.
Maybe I wasn't much more confused or estranged than the average
adolescent in my vague, uninformed appetite for something different.
The Beat Generation, as interpreted in cartoon-like fashion by Ufe
How Did You Become AnAnarchist?
magazine, represented exotic rebellion to me. Dirty beatniks! Not everyone,
it seemed, was a smiling, patriotic consumer. Portland, Oregon's Reed
College seemed a pretty beat place when I visited in my senior year,
including people sitting on the floor and dogs in the bookstore. The
campus exuded a non-conformist, intellectual atmosphere that really
grabbed me. But the priests at my school were decidedly appalled at my
desire to apply to such a hotbed of godless, bohemian communism. I
needed three letters of recommendation from teachers and couldn't get
I was thrilled, however, to get a scholarship to Stanford, and enrolled
Fall, 1961. The Farm, as it has been called since railroad baron
Leland Stanford founded it in the 1890s, was beginning its ascendancy,
paralleling the rise of adjacent Silicon Valley and the gradual, overall shift
of power in the U.S. from the East coast to the Pacific Rim. I was rather
awed by its palm-, eucalyptus-, and sportscar-studded 10,000 acres,
complete with lake, fire department, stables, golf course, etc. And
frankly wondered if I would make the grade, especially against the many
incoming freshmen from real prep schools: eighteen-year-olds
incomparably more sophisticated than me, familiar with such things as
foreign films, folk music, the blues, and Camus (whose name I didn't even
know how to pronounce).
One rich kid I knew very slightly dropped out after only a few
weeks, declaring in a letter to the campus daily that he'd already done
his "penance" academically and was bored by required, introductory
courses. I recall standing with my mouth open as he packed his bags to
go off to Switzerland for the skiing.
But I learned fairly quickly that flunking out was unlikely, and
from that point on an inchoate disillusionment began to set in. As a would-
be beatnik who remained a Catholic, I wasn't really turned on by
college classes. It was exciting to select interesting-sounding courses at
the beginning of every term, only to feel later that they were just successive
pre-packaged elements in a competitive grind for grades. Stanford was and
is a lot of very intelligent people, minus original thinking: a pretty
So I went about in my army fatigue jacket with no real friends,
the bloom fading from the rose. It was hard to maintain real interest,
and my grades began to slip. A sojourn in Europe, at Stanford-in-Italy
Running on Emptiness
in Florence, at the end of my sophomore year, helped some. Especially
because I made a few very close friends in the Florentine villa that was
home for six months. And it was in Italy that I first began to take a
critical look at social and political life. To improve my Italian I subscribed
to Umanita, the Communist Party daily. I was struck by the stark
poverty in Naples when I hitchhiked there. Another watershed during
that overseas sojourn in 1963 was the bombing of a Birmingham
church, a racist attack that killed four black children. I don't remember
discussing it or thinking about it at length, but it had an impact on me.
Hitchhiking to Naples that summer, I was struck by a tableau in a very
poor district. An old man and a teenage boy were studying together in an
old building; the former was apparently teaching the lad something, in the
neighborhood hall of the Italian Communist Party. I remember coming
across them and feeling moved by their connection with each other.
This was perhaps the very beginning of my political life, the start of a
replacement (or grounding) of values that had before this time been
In the summer of '63 1 also hitchhiked to Assisi. My Christian faith
had all but evaporated; I went there to give it a last shot. St. Francis, with
his love for animals and his innocence, appealed to me. But I found no
rescusitation of interest in Catholicism. In fact, the church at that
historic place was curiously modern, and the priest in charge was
actually from Ohio. Not inspiring.
Back on the Farm, my focus on school resumed a tendency to blur. I
was Class of '65, but by early that year I literally couldn't concentrate.
Upon taking an exam I would find that virtually none of the material
I'd read came to mind. Some kind of minor breakdown was happening, so
I got a medical leave of absence, returning to Oregon and enrolling at a
tiny Willamette Valley college in order to avoid the mounting Vietnam war
Mt. Angel College, another Benedictine place of learning, was
metamorphosing in an interesting "sign of the times" direction in
1965. The liberal arts college had been a safe, Catholic alternative to
more worldly schools and was often a place where parents sent wayward
kids for moral improvement. Tike Sarah, nabbed for selling pot at her
California high school.
So ... How Did You Become An Anarchist? 173
Well, the '60s were already under way in some unlikely places, like
totally out-of-the-way Mt. Angel College, in 1965. And of course sending
young people there who were already weirdos and discontents only
hastened the process by which the inmates overran the asylum. Early
hippie students and offbeat teachers (especially in the art department)
lured straighter types into this obscure locus of the just-emerging
"counter-culture." By 1968, the institution's president would be defrocked
for siding with students against Benedictine authority. Already, in
temporary exile in Oregon, it began to seem to me that a new day was
arriving. In any case, it was a generally fun, healing place to be, just when
I really needed it.
Meanwhile, starting just before I dropped out in early '65, something
new was under way in the Bay Area environs near Stanford.. It was at
this time, in Berkeley, that the first large-scale anti-Vietnam War
protest took place. A very dramatic evening march with a sadly anti-
Thousands of us streamed along down Telegraph Avenue, heading for
the Oakland Army depot on San Francisco Bay. The aim was to proceed
south through Berkeley, west through Oakland, all the way to the base,
and then interfere with its operations. Most of the supplies fueling the
war were being shipped from that particular arms depot.
We drew up to Ashby Avenue, next to the Berkeley -Oakland boundary,
and stopped. Across the intersection of Telegraph and Ashby were
hundreds of Oakland cops, a large phalanx of pigs in riot gear, barring our
Various speakers discussed this impasse, stressing the need to move
forward anyway . The mood of the crowd grew stronger in response to
the challenge we faced. Grew equal to the fear we felt, and then some.
But at this crucial point, Ken Kesey got to the makeshift podium and
began playing "Home on the Range" on a harmonica. Slow and plaintive,
the tune served to deflate the resolve of the thousands of protestors. And
the march was simply called off. There was some announcement about
meeting the next day, as I recall, but the evening's showdown was over.
The main thrust of the ensuing commentary was that cooler and wiser
heads had prevailed. No one was hurt; common sense and nonviolence
had overcome temporary passion.
Running on Emptiness
And within a very few months, the U.S. government had decided
on all-out war in Vietnam. An escalating campaign killed upwards of
four million Asians over the ensuing ten years.
It didn't dawn on me until much later that there was very likely a
connection between what happened on that night in Berkeley early in
1965 and the course of genocidal war in Southeast Asia. Foreign policy
may have hinged on the protest that didn't happen. Public response to
war is generally a key factor to be reckoned with, and what occurred in
Berkeley was token resistance, at best. Since no real opposition was
expected, the authorities had no political reason to hold back.
If we had gone forward, people would have been hurt, almost cer-
tainly. Some might even have been killed. But the government might
well have decided that serious resistance could be expected if it moved
forward with a greatly intensified war.
In other words, we failed that night, and millions died. All the ritual
peacenik demos of the '60s and early '70s failed. The war ended in
1975 because Vietnamese kept fighting and because American troops
began refusing to fight. The route of serious resistance at home was
ruled out very early on.
After my time off in Oregon, at Mt. Angel College (it felt mainly like
time off, in that relaxed, small-town bohemia), I returned to Stanford
in the fall of '65 to do my last two terms. "The Farm" was the same
stodgy, isolated place it had always been, but by this time something
was definitely in the air. Stanford was catching up with Mt. Angel, and
the Haight-Ashbury and Berkeley were now in high gear, if you'll
pardon the pun.
The one outrageous scene wasn't on campus — big surprise — but in adjacent
Palo Alto and East Palo Alto. Ken Kesey and fellow party ers including Neal
Cassidy (soon to be called the Merry Pranksters), the Grateful Dead (a local
band that had been known until recently as the Warlocks), and LSD, a
new, defenses-melting drug, combined in all-night phenomena advertised
as Acid Tests. ("Can You Pass the Acid Test?")
With a couple of friends who were more in the know, I attended an
Acid Test in a vintage ex-roller rink. We opened some swinging doors and
the first thing I saw was Neal Cassady, standing nearby with a
microphone in his mouth, having several simultaneous conversations
So ... How Did You Become An Anarchist? 175
with people who weren't there. I backed out of the doors in a
hurry, having stumbled onto full-out insanity. After a few short look-ins,
coming inside briefly but staying near the front entrance, I got used to
the prevailing madness. I wasn't ready yet to sample the acid Kool-Aid,
but enjoyed the daring zone of anti-normality, including a slide show
by Kesey, "America Needs Indians."
A few months later I went to LA. for an Acid Test in a large pornography
film studio on Pico Boulevard. In the morning we drove out to the
beach, and I saw snowmen on all the lawns and an aircraft carrier up
ahead of us on the freeway. We collapsed on the sand and woke up
many hours later, badly sunburned.
I even had a course or two that I actually enjoyed, with the finish line
coming into view. A degree in political science is surely a monument
to wasted time, but I remember a substantial seminar on Marxism, and I
began to delve more into history, which should have been my major all
along — a better chance to learn some content.
In my final term I lucked into a colloquium on the Russian Revo-
lution, taught by none other than the head of the provisional govern-
ment in 1917, Alexander Kerensky. Premier between the fall of the
Czar in March and the Bolshevik takeover in October, he was now an
elderly gentleman, his white hair crew-cut. He was also, not too sur-
prisingly, quite passionate about his fall from power and the "unprinci-
pled" tactics of his successful rival Lenin. Sitting next to him at a screening
of Eisenstein's classic silent film, "Ten Days That Shook the World," I
watched him in profile as much as I watched the film. In a pivotal
scene, the crowd breaks into the palace; the actor playing Kerensky appears
on a grand staircase, first running up and then running down, a symbol of
his political vacillation in the face of contending social forces. Sitting
in the dark in early 1966, almost 40 years after that momentous day,
Kerensky watched, agitated and upset, reliving his own history.
I graduated at the end of winter term and the April 1 date on my A.B.
degree was not completely lost on me. By then, the '50s were finally at an
end and things were beginning to get crazy, especially in the Bay Area. I
recall an episode one evening in nearby Menlo Park before I left Stanford.
In a car with Neal Cassady and a classmate who was a friend of his, we
pulled into a gas station, where Neal jumped
Running on Emptiness
out to deal with the high-school-age attendant. He popped the
hood, went around checking the tires, climbed in and out of the car, while
feverishly bombarding the kid with comments and questions, including
a complicated query about green stamps (a promotional giveaway of the
day). The attendant's mouth was agape and he was probably as freaked as
I had been upon my first encounter with Cassady. He moved
slowly backward, broke into a run, and fled into the night down a side
street. Our mad driver concluded that green stamps would not be
forthcoming and drove off, gasoline on the house.
I returned to Oregon and got a job washing dishes in a big retirement
complex near Portland. With the troop buildup in Vietnam heading
toward half a million, the draft was nailing everyone in sight. Without my
student deferment, it was clear that official greetings would be in the
mail within a month or two.
No thanks to Stanford, I'd become increasingly aware of the repressive
and destructive nature of the reigning system, and was by now totally
opposed to the Vietnam war. Two friends and I pledged that we'd go
to Mexico together should we pass the draft board physical.
At the Selective Service center in Portland that spring of 1.966, the
three of us were more than a little worked up. In fact, I'd gotten drunk
and overturned my VW into a ditch a few nights before. Luckily, the
passengers and myself were not injured.
John and I played the physical as a kind of psychodrama, with emphasis on
the psycho. John as a crazed, manic weirdo, me as a virtually catatonic
weirdo. (In less than a year the induction centers would be a lot more
wised up to such fakery.) Ken, who'd had a tree fall on his foot,
breaking most of its bones, was fairly quickly sent home. "You
can't march on that. Just have your doctor send us the x-rays," the
Army examiner said. Guess who, some months later and unbeknownst to
John and me, ended up in Vietnam.
With a permanent deferment, I promptly returned to California and
got a job at the Shell Oil refinery in Martinez, just north of Berkeley.
But the work ranged from generally boring to occasionally dangerous,
and in a few months I headed for the Haight-Ashbury .
At this point I need to explicitly restrict the scope of this mini-
memoir, because I can't see another way forward with it. In the interest
How Did You Become An Anarchist? 177
of protecting the privacy of others, this account will avoid most
personal relationships. I'll skirt the pitfalls of saying too little or too
much about others — and, I must admit, the pitfall of how to honestly
acquit myself in an area of great importance. Certain people have
meant a lot to me personally, and still do.
1966 was the banner year for the fabled Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of
San Francisco. On block after square block, suddenly there were
hippies everywhere. LSD, free rock music, instant camaraderie.... A new
scene was booming, change was definitely in the air. People were
partying and laughing at the old world. Kesey and the Pranksters had
moved up the Peninsula from the Stanford environs; Kesey had been
busted twice for pot and failed to appear in court. Conforming to the
spirit of the Haight, he would appear in adjacent Golden Gate Park in
outrageous disguises to thumb his nose at the many cops — including
FBI — who were after him. So many knew it was him, but the heat was
in the dark; quite hilarious, even though he was caught fairly soon,
driving in a car on a Bay Area freeway.
Dropouts were arriving from all over and the place was becoming quite
the exotic tourist attraction. A showdown of sorts came on Easter weekend,
1967. City Hall decided that bus service was to be diverted from Haight
Street to the streets on either side of it, apparently to better
accommodate the almost bumper-to-bumper traffic of
"straights" driving through to gawk at the colorful inhabitants. It was
pretty clear that the choice was to acquiesce to this policy or to defend
the Haight as a liberated zone.
Only a handful of us showed up to block traffic and oppose the increased-
traffic plan. Hippies, then as now, proved passive rather than resistant, and
the fate of the 'hood was sealed. The heyday of HaightAshbury was over,
and in rather short order a joyful, expansive spirit was replaced by a
large-scale "back to the land" retreat and a sharp rise in the use of non-
psychedelic hard drugs among those remaining. Berkeley, on the other
hand, was still coming on, as a very politicized center of anti-war
organizing and other increasingly militant directions. In late summer
'66 I got arrested at a big, stupid "civil disobedience" anti-war demo
and spent 15 days in the Contra Costa County jail. This was the first and
last time I was lame enough to present myself to be arrested.
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But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before the end of the year, I'd run out
of money and taken a job as a public welfare caseworker for the City
and County of San Francisco. At age 23, 1 was still just beginning to
think about how the world ran and what I could do about it. The four
years I spent at the Department of Social Services were to prove, as they
say, a learning experience.
In fact, an experience of some consequence happened soon after I took
the job. I happened to work in the vicinity of a guy who was about to
retire — a quiet old lifer named Donnelly who'd never uttered a peep
against the workings of the welfare system. At ten minutes to 5:00 p.m.
on his very last day, he was given the boot. Incredible as it sounds, the
downtown brass fired him at the last moment, so as to avoid paying his
Not too surprisingly, there was an enormous uproar. It was an
unbelievable outrage, especially now that "the Sixties" — that part of
the decade that tried to count for something — was now showing up.
The union, a local of the Services Employees International (SEIU),
always beloved by liberals, said that nothing could be done, and refused
to make any effort on Donnelly's behalf. This was a classic instance of
the collusion and corruption of unions in general.
Virtually overnight, an independent union was formed. A militant, do-
it-yourself outfit, hated by Organized Labor as much as by City Hall. It
was exciting and instructive to be a part of this wide-open experiment in
radical democracy. We decided against having any paid organizers or
officers, and rejected signing any contract with the City and County.
Membership would be strictly voluntary, ruling out the possibility of a
"closed shop" arrangement in which union dues become an
automatic paycheck deduction. I served as vice-president in 1967 and
president in 1968. Our union — sedately named the Social Services
Employees Union — came to encourage members to invent positions
according to their agitational interests and then "run" for election to the new
positions as a kind of ratifying process. Dues were whatever amount an
individual chose to contribute. SSEU militants drew up an organizers'
manual intended to encourage a prairie fire of constant challenges to the
authority of the welfare bureaucracy. Workers — caseworkers, clerks,
public hospital employees — were invited, for example, to file endless
grievances, through a process
So ... How Did You Become An Anarchist? 179
designed to spread participation with unlimited assistance and open
testimony. All negotiations were designed to be transparent, with every
concession merely an opening to further demands. We constantly exposed
the logic of public policy as repressive control of poor people, and the
police role of Organized Labor in its parallel control of employees.
Early on, we held a public meeting with Emmett Grogan and the
Diggers, to explore possible common round in the area of radically-
based social services. But we found very little commonality. Our
organizing-on-the-job approach didn't appeal to the D'ggers, who were
The ultimate goal was to destabilize the system from the inside and to
achieve an alliance between welfare workers and welfare recipients. We
failed, misreading our possibilities for spontaneous action in general and
our role as paid agents of government in particular. A rare example of
connection occurred when the bureaucracy tried to fire a very active
union militant. Scores of public assistance clients showed up at City
Hall and turned the tide, saving Charley's job. But without an explicit
critique of the overall setup, SSEU was fated to play a reformist, if noisy
part; similarly, there was no convincing reason why our welfare clients
should find themselves working with us.
But for a time, we felt we'd discovered a liberating "third way," steering
between an inherently complicit unionism and the various groupings of
authoritarian Marxism, so prevalent in the '60s. journalists would get
the word and excitedly write feature stories about our experimental effort.
Not a single story was published, however, demonstrating what we saw as a
kind of contemporary fascism. Government, unions, and business united
against this kind of independent activity. We tried to spread our little
contagion to other, mainly white-collar workplaces, and did get asked
for organizing advice. A couple of times, the Black Panthers sought our
help in terms of members who drove buses and cable cars. For all the
Panthers' militant courage in the streets, they were at a loss in terms of
protecting themselves on the job. All these experiences tended to
encourage our workerist illusions.
SSEU was what I mainly did from late 1966 to early 1971, with
occasional weekend rioting across the Bay in Berkeley during '68 and
'69. As time went on in the Department of Social Services, my
Running on Emptiness
(unpaid, of course) union role more and more outstripped my case-
worker role, and organizing began to feel problematic in itself. I was
increasingly bothered by what seemed like a fatal flaw inherent in the
organizing mode. I still feel that organizing entails trying to get people
to do things without fully revealing the program, vision, or agenda
that's behind the organizing. Of course, if there's no transcendent
radical orientation and goal behind the effort, then it's just reform, pure
and simple. But if there is a radical goal, more or less hidden, then
how can the organizing activity not be seen as inherently manipulative?
During most of this period, it had seemed to me that unless one had a
job there could be no leverage on society. Action in the streets, however
militant and dangerous, was misplaced, could not have much effect. But
this outlook was losing its appeal for me. Transparency was becoming a
more important factor, as I thought about ways to try to overturn the
dominant order. In this sense, some of the ideas of the Situationists had a
big effect on my thinking, from the time I first learned about them,
around 1970. Their no-holds-barred critiques of the many varieties of
leftism appealed to me in a big way. I was never in full accord with all
their theses, but the non-manipulative, up-front quality of the Sits was
The radical, often visionary outlook of the Situationist International
did not, alas, reach the U.S. (and the West coast in particular) in time
to influence "The Movement" much at all. Similarly, the radical
women's movement didn't arrive until 1969, too late to have a chance to
deepen and enlighten the '60s. As for the anarchists, I'm not aware that
they played more than a very slight role. Anarchists seemed pretty
invisible, their activities usually confined to the archaic, mini-bureaucratic
realm of the IWW. These anarcho-syndicalists were characteristically
uncritical of unionism, the prevailing leftism, and other impediments to
revolution. They seemed virtually unaware of the global wave of
opposition during the '60s.
In the early 1970s I took notice of how much organizing I'd been
doing and also, how much writing. The writing was mostly about the
deeply collaborationist nature of unions, their key role in a state/busi-
ness/organized labor system that is designed to freeze out independent,
potentially radical modes of activity. Mainly via their legally binding
How Did You Become An Anarchist? 181
labor-management contracts and strictly bureaucratic
structures, unions enforce and legitimate the conditions and the very
existence of wage labor. Coinciding with the height of my interest in
this subject arose a much-publicized "revolt against work"
phenomenon. Suddenly a spate of articles appeared that acknowledged
widespread absenteeism, employee turnover, sabotage, drug use on the
job, wildcat strikes, etc. A kind of non-political or underground resistance
seemed to have replaced the public radicalism of the '60s. A more explicit
kind of underground opposition was also present at this time,
exemplified by groups like the Black Liberation Army and Weather
In early 1971 I began graduate studies in U.S. history at San Fran-
cisco State, earning an MA. degree the following year. This was chiefly
a way to pursue my research/writing interests and to indulge my own
aversion to work. "Organized Labor and the Revolt Against Work" was
published in a 1973 issue of the radical theory journal Telos.
After a month or so in Europe, I enrolled at the University of Southern
California in the fall of '72. This mediocre place was adequate for
my purposes, and it was primarily my own labor studies/social
control topics that I pursued there until 1975. Approaching the completion
of a Ph.D. program and having never intended to become a professor, it
was time to move on. During the last two years at USC I had been a
teaching assistant, a job whose light duties offered free tuition and office
space. In fact, my failure to be properly obsequious in the feudal game of
prostrating oneself before an all-powerful doctoral committee of
"superiors" had placed me increasingly on their shit list, as I discovered.
Just before I took the two weeks of written qualifying exams required
for Ph.D. candidacy, I was told that my assistantship would not be
renewed for the following year. Every professor I'd worked for had
allegedly had problems with me. Since none of them had every
expressed dissatisfaction to me personally, I concluded that this move
was simply intended to mess me up during the exams that were to
commence the next day. I passed the exams and resigned, expressing
my contempt in a flippant postcard to the chairman of my committee.
There was a little problem of about $13,000 (mainly in student
loans), but at that time debt could be disposed of easily. With the
help of some kind of "people's law services" in Echo Park, I filed for
Running on Emptiness
bankruptcy on the entire amount. Redfaced with anger, the judge
demanded to know what would happen if everyone were to do the
same, what of the deserving poor, etc. We both knew he had no
choice but to sign away what I owed. In the elevator going downstairs
from the courtroom, my people's lawyer expressed some agreement
with the judge's attitude. If there had been any doubt, that remark
made it a certainty that he wasn't going to be paid either.
So ended three years in L.A. Returning to San Francisco in 1975, it
was clear that the days of contestation were not only gone, but were
unlikely to return anytime soon. I continued to publish in Telos off an
on during the 70s, and thanks to Fredy Perlman I discovered and
began a relationship with Fifth Estate of Detroit before the end of 75.
Writing, drinking a lot, getting by on short-term jobs, unemployment
benefits, a few small-time scams.
I was also thinking about what the '60s meant — how far the movement
did and didn't go, why it ended — questions along those lines. My work
had become more history- and theory -oriented, as can happen when
contemporary reality becomes less promising. Exploring the roots of
unionism, I discovered the Luddite revolts and delved into early
industrial capitalism. The idea that the factory system arose in large part
to corral and subdue a dispersed and autonomous population was a big
revelation, and led to further questions about technology. If a mode of
production initiated in the late 18th century had, built-in, a social
control intentionality, where else was this kind of dimension also present?
I began to consider that perhaps technology is never neutral, that it
expresses or embodies the values desired by a dominant group.
1977 was the year of the original punk rock explosion in San Fran-
cisco, imported from its birth in the U.K. about a year earlier. No one
thought its vehemence was the rebirth of the '60s, but it occasioned an
exciting outburst of nihilist energy . Punk might be thought of as a kind
of aftershock of the '60s quake, although many punkers were explicitly
contemptuous of that earlier scene (especially of hippies). The first blast
of raw, angry punk was bracing as hell, and some went further than music
performance. For instance, a small bunch went up to Pacific Heights more
than once to bash new Mercedes, BMWs, and the like with chains and
metal bars. More characteristic, of course, were the
How Did You Become An Anarchist?
drug O.D.s that occurred all along, even during the 1977 heyday, as
well as later.
By early 78 the initial rush was over, particularly for the more political
types like myself who secretly hoped that punk might actually re-ignite
significant resistance. '60s illusions and groundless idealism were
effectively dead and the new defiance of punk went deeper, even with its
cynical overlay. Or so it seemed for a season.
By this time alcohol had become a serious problem for me,
adversely affecting my relationships (that's putting it euphemistically) and
bringing the writing pretty much to a stop. At the end of the decade I'd
been kicked out of a group household for stupid, drunken behavior and
was living with some illegals in a Mission district flat furnished with
broken castoffs. I suppose the latter was appropriate, given that Id
helped burn the furniture where I lived before, for no known reason. During
the next couple of years I routinely drank myself into blackout states, with
killer hangovers and zero memory of the nights before. My only steady
income came from selling my plasma twice a week.
Meanwhile, San Francisco was becoming less and less tolerable. Both
the rents and the number of insane people wandering the streets were
on the rise. So many people in the Bay Area, but no one, apparently,
fighting the ugly, lying system. My friend Joe was doing a life term at
Folsom, and I was never far from feelings of impotent rage over that.
In an evasive effort to curb my drinking I ended up completely
hooked on tranquilizers, needing more and more of them and still not
drinking less. In short, I was a mess.
In March 1981, I moved back to Oregon. In the Portland Grey-
hound station I saw a crowd gathering around a black man who was
holding a very small portable TV and chuckling. The news was
coming in that Reagan had been shot. Nearby, a contingent of Oregon
State University students were preparing to board their bus to Corval-
lis. I could hear outright laughter and joking about the shooting among
members this group. They were bound for a campus known as fairly
conservative, at a moment when it wasn't clear whether Reagan was dead
That spring and summer I worked in Newport, on Oregon's
central coast, first at a shrimp cannery and then as a waiter. One weekend
some friends from Seattle visited me and a strav comment.
Running on Emptiness
not pursued at the time, registered and got under my skin. As we drove
to a lake to go swimming, someone said, "I don't think the term revolution
has meaning anymore." My unspoken reaction was twofold: I didn't like
hearing that, and I knew for some reason that it was true.
As noted above, I'd already been doing some historical exploring
of the role of technology in society. My friend's comment deepened
the questioning and also brought contemporary radical practice into
my research. His remark implied that the efforts of the '60s just
weren't deeply oriented enough to have qualified as liberatory. "Revo-
lution" now seemed inadequate, and I was challenged by the question
of what would go far enough.
Back in Los Angeles, in the mid-'70s, I had put out flyers that sported
the name "Upshot" and an Echo Park P.O. box address. This was
influenced by our SSEU habit of daily agitational leaflets, and by critiques
that the Situationists embodied in their pamphlets. Sometimes one or
two other people helped with the Upshot flyers, and the practice had
persisted in San Francisco during the second half of the decade. I resumed
creating flyers on my own after moving to Eugene in the fall of 1981.
Library facilities at the University of Oregon constituted the main
reason for the move, the better to pursue answers to various questions
about the depth of alienated society and what a dis-alienated world
might consist of. On a more prosaic level, my main source of income
continued to be twice -weekly visits to the local plasma center. My own
alienation was underlined as I stood in line early one morning waiting
for the center to open. A woman in an expensive car, stopped at a traffic
light, looked at our disreputable ranks with evident disgust. I remember
feeling pleased to be standing where I was, not part of the terrorized-by-
The early '80s were a take-off point for high-tech developments,
especially computerization in general, and the appearance of personal
computers in particular. New and grandiose predictions from the Artifi-
cial Intelligence people seemed emblematic of a new stage of estrangement
and dehumamzation, succinctly expressed by AI pioneer Marvin Minsky's
pronouncement that "the brain is a three-pound computer made of
meat. " It was hard not to notice that social existence was being rapidly
techmfied as a key part of growing estrangement. We were
How Did You Become An Anarchist?
becoming more and more separated from the natural world, each other,
and even our own experience.
It began to occur to me that the sense of time, and time as a cul-
tural dimension, were fundamental to the development of this
massive alienation. I spent most of 1982 exploring time as a fairly
exact measure of alienation, appearing and developing in tandem with
it. According to anthropologists, humans once lived in the present,
with little or no consciousness of that very elusive thing we call time.
How is it that we are now so ruled by time, as some kind of external,
almost palpable presence over our consciousness? Time seems to be the
first form of estrangement. The separation from the now that has
grown so markedly that our lives are much more past and future than
present to us.
When I didn't have to work, the U of library was my haunt,
seven days a week at times. At this time I began to see what a paradigm
shift had occurred, during the past couple of decades, in how
anthropologists and archaeologists viewed the state of humankind
before agriculture. Though Homo species had been around for more
than two million years, the "breakthrough" had happened only 10,000
years ago, with the domestication of animals and plants. And the
overall picture of humans before agriculture had long portrayed a pre-
carious, violent, benighted existence. Outside of civilization (which quickly
followed once we had achieved domestication), life had been, in Hobbes'
famous dictum, "nasty, brutish, and short."
The new view is a virtual reversal of that general outlook. The lit-
erature and its supporting evidence have established gatherer-hunter
human life-99 percent of our span as Homo — as one of ample
leisure time, no organized violence, a strong degree of gender auton-
omy and equality, and healthy, varied, robust lives. In broadest overview,
this is what is taught now in Anthropology 101. Scholars who used to
ask, "Why did it take our ancestors so long to adopt agriculture?" now
wonder, "Why did they ever do it?"
We've always known what followed the trading in of a foraging lifeway
for that of farming: war, private property, subjugation of women, ecological
destruction, and the state, to name a few results. Now we see what
preceded it and what a horrible bargain it was, and continues to be. The
logic of domestication is ever clearer, as civilization demonstrates
Running on Emptiness
its destructive impacts on every level from the personal to the biospheric.
Five years of the 1980s were taken up with essays on time, lan-
guage, number, art, and agriculture, published in Fifth Estate. They all
deal with origins of our present imprisonment, whose foundation may
be traced to the intertwined advance of division of labor and symbolic
culture, leading to and extending domestication. These explorations
were published in Elements of Refusal (Seattle: Left Bank Books, 1988) and
are much of the basis for Future Primitive (Brooklyn: Autonomedia,
In the mid-'80s "Upshot" became "Anti- Authoritarians Anony-
mous," flyers and posters by Dan and myself In that era of retrench-
ment and reaction, almost no radical activity could be found. We had
to content ourselves with cultural critique, often employing the detourning
of ads and other public images, and ridiculing the pious nonsense of the
local pacifists. We didn't exactly rouse the populace to insurrection, but it
was nice to find out that our broadsides came to adorn a few folks'
Quiet times, but in addition to writing projects and the AAA flyers
I enjoyed a growing and far-flung correspondence. Thanks to wonderful
Alice, I was able to stop the alcohol abuse. It was also good to come to
have a closer tie with my family, beginning about this time. Not only
just the moving back to Oregon in 1981, but especially a rapprochement
with my conservative father. He'd been burned by Nixon's Watergate
debacle and more or less concluded that the political system —
including Social Security — didn't have much of a future. He was now
less inclined to condemn my shirker, non-commercially viable ways.
Some do "mellow with age," and it was apparent that he enjoyed my visits.
In the '90s it would also be evident, to dust off another cliche, that the
child becomes parent to the parents. My sister, living next door to
them, a hundred miles closer, shouldered far more of the responsibility
for them in their last years. But a basically close family drew closer, and
after our parents' deaths my sister and I have drawn still nearer each other.
If the first half of the 1960s are more properly thought of as part of
the dreaded '50s, the first half of the '90s belonged to the dead zone of
the preceding decade. These were the years of Milli Vanilli, the Waco
inferno, Kurt Cobain's suicide, the O..T. Simpson trial, and the
How Did You Become An Anarchist?
high-water mark of postmodern cynicism and collaboration. There was
also the L.A. rising in 1992, and the end of Apartheid in South Africa
the year before, but overall American life seemed, to embody the con-
tinuing stasis of a too-slowly rotting culture. The fall of the state capi-
talist Soviet Union in 1990 gave market capitalism a boost toward a
more global, closed system. The penetration of capital into new
spheres of daily life paralleled a colonization that was being speeded up
all over the world with technology, as ever, its close partner. Not only
do Cyberspace and Virtual Reality express avoidance and denial in terms of
what was and is being obliterated of nature and direct experience. They
also represent new realms for domination itself. A growing misogyny is
perhaps the ugliest, worsening aspect of a society that is becoming
increasingly separated from the authenticity of direct accountability.
In the mid-'90s the wind began to turn and instances of resistance
cropped up, including the dramatic appearance of the Zapatista move-
ment in southern Mexico and the seemingly unstoppable
"Unabomber" attacks on various people bringing on the Brave New
I'd moved across town in '83 from the University area to the
Whiteaker, Eugene's oldest and only diverse neighborhood. In fact, I've
lived on or within a half block of 4th and Adams, and have been part
of a 22-household housing co-op there since late 1987. The fact that it
is essentially run by women is such a big plus in terms of meetings and
other interactions — the main reason, it occurs to me, why I've stayed
involved for so long.
Nearby, Icky's Tea House (1993-97) was the site of the first stir-
rings of resistance in the 'hood. Aside from some of the frequent punk
music shows there, virtually everything was free, including a bike repair
corral, lending library, and weekly film evenings. Copwatch was born
there, and a benefit for Ted Kaczynski was held in May, 1996. Ickys
was an anti-commercial haven for various folks who didn't feel at home
in the prevailing work-pay -die ethos. The cops increasingly harassed the
place, aided decisively by a local liberal columnist and the liberal owner of
a neighborhood natural food grocery. The latter campaigned furtively to
pressure the building's owner to sever Icky's lease and to cause the last-
minute veto of a grant from a church. Good oT
188 Running on Emptiness
Icky 's went under after four years, victim of the surrounding pig
culture and some of its enforcers.
The Unabomber became very big news in 1995, following his last
fatal parcel. It had been sent to Gilbert Murray of Sacramento, head of
public relations for the clear-cutting of the remaining forests in the Western
states. The New York Times determined that my writings were quite
similar to the critique of technology ideas being expressed in Unabomber
public statements. I agreed to talk with a reporter about the nature of
technology, its deeply negative logic, etc. The result was a longish, early
May piece in the Times that ended the obscurity in which I'd operated.
The authorities' futile efforts to end the by -then seventeen-year
stretch of bombings by the Unabomber (a name jointly conferred by
the FBI and the media) made headlines in the summer of '95. I got
the impression that I was among the suspects that season when my
mail was interfered with for some weeks, and my house was burglar-
ized. Several letters that I knew were sent to me never arrived, and the
break-in resulted in the removal of only two items: my address book
and a pair of fairly old sneakers.
In the fall the Washington Post published "Industrial Society and its
Future," the so-called "Unabomber Manifesto." In essence, the essay
demonstrates that the progress of technological society means less and
less freedom and fulfillment for the individual. Federal authorities rec-
ommended the release of this extremely cogent 30,000-word treatise,
following its author's promise to suspend his bombing campaign if it
was made widely available. Ted Kaczynski's brother David snitched on
him to the FBI after noting strong similarities between Ted's writings
and "Industrial Society"; he was arrested in April '96 at his tiny Montana
Our correspondence soon commenced and I first visited him, at the
Sacramento County Jail, one year later. There were no fewer than three
members of his legal team present at our visit, and enroute I was asked
to try to persuade him to accept their version of an insanity defense.
Amazed at such a request, I ignored it. Between April '97 and Ted's
sentencing in May 1998, we had four encounters. I would take the
overnight Amtrak and go to his Federal Defenders' offices for a legal
escort to the jail. Ted's lawyers, headed by Quinn Denvir and
How Did You Become An Anarchist?
Judy Clarke, told me that a lawyer's presence was necessary to secure
the privacy of visits. Only later it became clear that the primary con-
sideration wasn't so much to make sure that we couldn't be overheard
by the authorities as it was for the lawyers to monitor and police our
I found Kaczynski very sharp and unassuming, with a sense of humor.
His comments and questions always seemed appropriate and spontaneous,
though at times he could be a bit formal. Facing the death penalty and
always with legal accompaniment, the situation in terms of visits wasn't
ideal for free and relaxed communication. But it wasn't only our similar
ideas about technology that made for some preestablished rapport. Although
we discussed very little about our family histories, we shared some personal
background that probably contributed to our speaking a common
language. Of Slavic heritage, we'd both grown up in the pro-math and
science Sputnik era and as kids made bombs with our chemistry sets.
We were bright achievers who later turned our backs on academe,
pursuing "independent study." In fact, we each had younger brothers who
were social workers, and fathers who succumbed to cancer.
During the summer of '97, with Ted's trial set to begin in the fall, I
began to feel some of the mounting pressure. More than obviously, the
real heat was on him; but quite willingly, I'd gotten pulled into the pre-
trial drama — without benefit of being really included. With a stroke, it
seemed, the Unabomber critique had opened a new era of possibility, and
this was and is of enormous importance to me. More to the point, there
was a specific life on the line, a person I was getting to know, involving
a heavy emotional identification. My problem was that I was in the dark
as to what role I really had in his defense. At times it seemed that he
was relying on me for something, but weeks of silence might follow an
intense letter, with occasional, but sometimes cryptic phone calls from his
lawyers, which never clarified things.
A related frustration had to do with the desire a few of us had to
try to campaign on his behalf, mainly by drawing attention to the
cogent ideas of "Industrial Society and its Future." Lydia "Boston
had used a semi-serious "Unabomber for President" effort ln '96 to
draw attention to critical Unabomber theses, and a scattered handful
of us were in touch, wanting to expand pro-Ted efforts. The defense
Running On Emptiness
attorneys had made it clear that they were opposed to politicizing the
case, as if that dimension of it wasn't already entirely obvious. So I saw
Ted in August and made the pitch for his permission to go ahead in
that direction. His response, not what we'd hoped to hear, echoed the
larger dilemma of the case. He said something like, "Wow, that sounds
good. I hope you can persuade my lawyers! "
Jury selection began in November, and when Ted entered the
courtroom for the first time he nodded to me, precipitating a minor
stampede of reporters my way during morning recess. "Who are you?"
"Do you know Kaczynski?" etc. I said nothing and was shielded by a
junior member of the legal team, my anonymity remaining intact. Through
the second floor window of the Sacramento federal courthouse, I
looked out on a block-long row of press tents and satellite dishes of the
national and international press corps.
A flurry of expected motions and counter-motions next brought
the trial itself into view as the end of 1997 loomed. December revealed
the essence of what had been going on behind the scenes for some time,
ably told, by the way, in Bill Finnegan's March 16, 1998 New Yorker
article, "Defending the Unabomber." Ted's federal defender lawyers were
anti-death penalty liberals, whose entire focus was saving his life. It
seems that the feds had promptly reneged on the FBI promise of a year and
a half earlier to David Kaczynski (dubbed "the Unasquealer" by David
Letterman), to not seek the death penalty if he would betray his brother.
In pursuit of their objective the lawyers finessed Kaczynski along, keeping
him in the dark by controlling all access to outside reality and denying
that they were really fashioning an insanity defense. That they were
lying to him began to become quite apparent when their almost daily
comments to the press belied this entirely, while he was doing
everything he could to prove his sanity and thus the meaning or
necessity of the Unabomber actions. Ted's lawyers, by this point, were
constantly portraying their client to the reporters as delusional and
Into January the defense strategy was rather openly a race to the
wire, the lawyers' effort to hold onto an insanity orientation up to the
decisive point in the trial before Kaczynski figured out what they were
really doing in his name. By this time, various media types could see
what was happening. Before each day's proceedings some of them
So ... How Did You Become An Anarchist?
would even call out cynical taunts to Denvir and Clarke: "Got control
of him?" One could see their anger, as illusions faded away. Judge Burrell
made it clear that he saw Ted as quite sane, offering his judgment on
one occasion, in camera, that the attorney's client had a better grasp of
the case than they did.
Finally it began to dawn on Kaczynski that the lawyers had not
been truthful, and he started to rethink his trusting reliance on them. I
had been loath to volunteer my impressions and doubts, which admit-
tedly had been slow in forming. And mail to Ted was always routed through
his lawyers' office; by this time I suspected that they were keeping some
letters from him. As with visits, the mail needed the legal transit for
"security reasons"; this guaranteed the lawyers' control over what Ted
could discuss or read.
He now phoned me on occasion, mainly to ask me to help him
connect with radical San Francisco lawyer Tony Serra, though he was
hesitant about firing the lawyers he'd depended upon for so long. Serra
told me to let Ted know that it was urgent for him to fire the lawyers;
the time to make such a move was running out. Serra's office set up a 24-
hour phone line to receive word from me about what Ted decided, in
case he couldn't communicate directly.
In mid- January 1998, the clock did indeed run out for Ted. He
tried to sack his lawyers in favor of Serra, and when that was denied
asked to be permitted to represent himself The judge ruled that it was
too late for either course, and further decreed that the trial would go
forth not only with his present representation, but also with their
insanity argument as his defense.
What Ted most feared had come to pass: he and his thinking
would be portrayed to the world as crazy. After a failed suicide
attempt, he accepted a plea agreement of life in prison for an admis-
sion of guilt. Further humiliation was avoided and his life was spared,
at the cost of not being allowed to establish that he was not a
In terms of my own minor role in all this, something happened
about a month earlier that "outed" me a good deal more than the May
'95 New York Times article had done. At the beginning of December,
Ted asked me to arrange for Christine Craft to visit him. She was a
writer for the Sacramento Weekly who had been in court everv dav and
Running on Emptiness
whose accounts, often critical of the way the defendant was being
treated, impressed him.
I called and got her excited assent to the prospect of a visit. I told
her to contact the Federal Defenders office if her name wasn't on his
visitors' list at the jail, and that they would assist her. She got a runaround
for days going into weeks and finally received the word that the lawyers
weren't going to permit her to see Ted. Of course, this was transpiring as
the attorneys focused on holding in place their deception concerning
the insanity plea, at a critical juncture in the proceedings. They
weren't about to let her possibly blow their control over him via his
direct access to media.
Christine was phoning me several nights a week to recount her
frustration, while at the same time the lawyers were working hard to
poison Ted's opinion of her. They portrayed her as a scheming, publicity-
seeking snoop with no legitimate interest in him.
Late in the month when it had been made clear that no visit was
going to happen, Ms. Craft decided to do a story anyway and tell,
among other things, her tale of being denied the chance to speak with
Ted Kaczynski. I felt, as Ted had initially, that she was a very fair-minded,
responsible individual and that she was obviously entitled to do a
piece on what had been going on. But she needed to be able to include
the part about being invited to see him, how that came about. This
included me, and meant that her end-of-December Sacramento Weekly
article brought a deluge of media attention my way. Having really very
few other connections to Kaczynski, journalists flocked to my house
and phoned at all hours for a while. I didn't talk to any of them until
the plea agreement was reached a month later.
Several months previously I had arranged, through the Cultural Forum
of the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, to give a talk
on campus in late January 1998. It turned out that the event took place
just a few days after the front page news of the plea agreement. During
those few days I'd talked with media folks locally, which brought major free
publicity to the talk and necessitated two successive changes to larger-
capacity campus venues.
More than 500 people showed up for my comments on the nature
and direction of technology. It's possible that some were disappointed
by my avoidance of any "What's the Unabomber really like?" -type
How Did You Become An Anarchist?
material. However, I ended the speech with the suggestion that there
might be a parallel between Kaczynski and John Brown. Brown made
an anti-slavery attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Vir-
ginia in 1859. Like Kaczynski, Brown was considered deranged, but he
was tried and hung. Not long afterward he became a kind of American
saint of the abolitionist movement. I offered the hope, if not the pre-
diction, that T.K. might at some point also be considered in a more
positive light for his resistance to industrial civilization. During the
question-and-answer period, a Native American woman and a teenage
boy each expressed their respect and admiration for Kaczynski.
The best thing about this campus presentation was that it prompted
two young anarchists to visit me some time later. Icky's was no more,
but a new, militant presence was soon at work. Overall, 1998 would
see an awakening that continues to grow, and has seemed especially
pronounced in Eugene and the Whiteaker neighborhood in particular.
Various repressive responses were soon felt. In fact, they had begun
in the neighborhood the preceding fall, when the City closed Scobert
Park, ignoring a rough consensus that the community had arrived at
through a series of open meetings. The little park was entirely fenced
off, but opposition swiftly appeared. Along with signs and banners and
folks doing a sleep-in, the fence disappeared during its first night on
duty around the park. In the morning it was replaced, and the next
night it was once again removed. This went on for a few days until the
City gave up. Victory for the neighborhood!
Summer of '98 saw local government attempt to cut down about
thirty old maple trees along three blocks in the heart of the Whiteaker.
This decimation of the area's loveliest feature would have been a
demoralizing blow. At the same time, in a series of secret meetings, a move
was underway to bring the federal "Weed and Seed" program to our
hotbed of emerging resistance and alternative ways. "Weed and Seed"
offers federal money to poor locales in return for permission to crack
down on any and all "law-breakers": weed out the bad elements and get
seed funds for, say, a community center. Both of these challenges to the
integrity of the neighborhood were loudly rebuffed, in no uncertain terms
by the solidarity of the residents who would have been affected.
Running On Emptiness
In other words, the resurfacing of opposition to business as usual
was met early on by various efforts at counter-attack. But a renewed
social movement was quickly developing, and in its militancy was
adopting radically new tactics.
In October '98 an anti-Nike demonstration crossed the line from
respectful symbolic protest to a real, non-legal act. To draw attention to
Nike's already notorious use of sweatshop labor, a standard march and
picket at the local outlet proceeded as usual, but the event soon took on
a different character. Several people, masked up and wearing black,
entered the store and trashed it by breaking a few items and throwing
apparel out the door into a fountain below. A bold departure from the
old gestures that never seem to show contempt for basics of the
work/consume/destroy nature treadmill.
In fact, night-time property damage was fast asserting itself and raising
the ante of discussion in Eugene. Targets of political vandalism in the
Whiteaker included a natural foods store whose owner worked overtime to
close Icky's Teahouse, the van owned by a cop residing in the
neighborhood, and a yuppie restaurant, which to many represented an
opening wedge to gentrification (higher rent for poor people). The last
place closed after a steady pattern of graphic, hostile acts.
Property destruction, mainly broken windows and spray -painted
graffiti, was hotly debated at first but has become more widely accepted
and even espoused as a necessary tactic. The same shift has occurred in
terms of increasingly militant tactics, seen as a needed escalation against
an all-destructive global system of capital and technology. Those of us
who know that the reigning setup must be stopped and dismantled have
for some time pushed for substantive resistance, and it has certainly
grown. From Seattle '99 to Prague 2000, Quebec City 2001 and
beyond, a strong resolve is in evidence, with "black bloc" and like-
The new level or stage of contestation began to be noticed outside
of Eugene. The winter of '98-99 was marked by continued radical
efforts, including the birth of the Black-Clad Messenger, an enduring
publication dedicated to indicting the whole trajectory of domination,
including its technological and civilization-based logic, and pushing
for even stronger responses. A June '99 Wall Street Journal article called
"Disaffected Youth Dust off a Combustible Philosophy" was a lengthy
So ... How Did You Become An Anarchist?
and scurrilous smear-job, full of inaccuracies, that sought to put the
heat on us.
But before the month was out, the spirit of anarchy in Eugene
delivered a counter-blow that significantly exceeded what had already
gone on. "Reclaim the Streets" on June 18 was a day of worldwide anti-
capitalist demonstrations, whose high point occurred in London as
thousands occupied part of the city center and disrupted the stock exchange
for a few hours. The Eugene edition of RTS began (like the smaller Nike
affair eight months earlier) as a rather standard-issue protest gathering,
and took a surprising turn. To sum up, about 200 people conducted a
roaming riot that went on for almost five hours, with banks and other
businesses damaged and the cops repeatedly in retreat. It was a glorious
outburst of energy against the Megamachine, although anarchist Rob
Thaxton (AKA Rob los Ricos), among eighteen arrested, was later
sentenced to seven years in prison for hitting a heavily armored cop with a
rock in defense of himself and a comrade. The anti-World Trade
Organization "Battle of Seattle" that got the world's attention five
months later had been prefigured in the streets of little old Eugene,
Meanwhile, of course, a movement that is more and more anar-
chist in orientation goes forward all over the world. And the anarchy
scene has itself changed rather fundamentally in recent years, away
from the traditional, production/progress-embracing outlook, toward
the primitivist critique or vision and its Luddite/femimst/decentraliza-
Certainly no one knows if the side of life, health, and freedom can
prevail against a system that has already produced an unprecedented
assault on all living beings. The global war on outer nature is matched
only by the assault, day after day, upon inner nature; but resistance is
waxing in strength and I am extremely hopeful. Increasingly, people see
what is at stake and how basic and far-reaching our alternatives need to
be. How wonderful it is that after several decades, people are rising to
the challenge. Nothing is more excellent than to have the opportunity to be
alive in these days and be a part of a marvelous and necessary effort.
These remarks, by the way, are in no way comprehensive. They
only skim the surface, mentioning some highlights and leaving out so
Running On Emptiness
much, perhaps especially in terms of the richness, diversity, and the
conflicts, too, here in the Eugene anarchist community. I will leave it to
others to fill in the rest, and correct my judgment or emphasis. Our
very future depends, similarly, upon everyone playing their part and making
the difference. In closing, I want to express my love to my two daughters.
The one I gave so little to but who has never cut me off, and the one
who adopted me, as undeserving as I am. The healed world awaits us all.
NO WAY OUT?
Agriculture ended a vast period of human existence largely character-
ized by freedom from work, non-exploitation of nature, considerable
gender autonomy and equality, and the absence of organized violence. It
takes more from the earth than it puts back and is the foundation of
private property. Agriculture encloses, controls, exploits, establishes
hierarchy and resentment. Chellis Glendinning (1994) described agri-
culture as the "original trauma" that has devastated the human psyche,
social life, and the biosphere.
But agriculture/domestication didn't suddenly appear out of nowhere,
10,000 years ago. Quite possibly, it was the culmination of a very slow
acceptance of division of labor or specialization that began in earnest in
Upper Paleolithic times, about 40,000 years ago. This process is behind
what Horkheimer and Adorno termed "instrumental reason" in their
Dialectic ofEnlightment. Although still touted as the precondition for
"objectivity," human reason is no longer neutral. It has somehow
become deformed, with devastating impact: our reason imprisons our true
humanity, while destroying the natural world. How else to account for the
fact that human activity has become so inimical to humans, as well as to all
other earthly species? Something had already started to take us in a negative
direction before agriculture, class stratification, the State, and industrialism
institutionalized its wrongness.
Running On Emptiness
This disease of reason, which interprets reality as an amalgamation of
instruments, resources, and means, adds an unprecedented and uncontrolled
measure of domination. As with technology, which is reason's incarnation or
materiality at any given time, reason's "neutrality" was missing from the
start. Meanwhile, we are taught to accept our condition. It's "human
nature" to be "creative," goes part of the refrain.
Division of labor gives effective power to some, while narrowing or
reducing the scope of all. This can be seen in the production of art as
well as in technological innovation. The distinctive work of individual
masters is apparent in the earliest cave art, and craft specialization is an
essential aspect of the later development of "complex" (AKA stratified)
societies. Specified roles facilitated a qualitative rupture with long-standing
human social patterns, in a remarkably short period of time. After two or
three million years of an egalitarian foraging (AKA hunter-gatherer) mode of
existence, in only 10,000 years, the rapid descent into a civilized lifeway.
Since then, an ever- accelerating course of social and ecological
destructiveness in every sphere of life.
It's also remarkable how complete the experience of civilization was
from its very first stages. K. Aslihan Yener's Domestication of Metal (2000)
discusses complex industry in civilization's opening act, the Early Bronze
Age. She charts the organization and management of tin mining and
smelting in Anatolia beginning in 8,000 BC. The archaeological
evidence shows irrefutably that erosion, pollution, and deforestation were
very significant consequences, as the earliest civilizations laid waste to
much of the Middle East.
With civilization, how it is is how it's always been. Russell Hoban's
1980 novel, Riddley Walker, provides keen insight into the logic of civi-
lization. What some call Progress, the narrator identifies as Power:
"It come to me then I know it Power dint go away. It ben and it wer
and it wud be. It wer there and drawing. Power want it you to come
to it with Power. Power wantit what ever cud happen to happen.
Power wantit every thing moving frontways."
The nature of the civilization project was clear from the begin-
ning. As the swiftly arriving product of agriculture, the intensification
No Way Out?
of domination has been steady and sure. It's telling that humans' first
monuments coincide with the first signs of domestication (R. Bradley in
Mither, 1998). The sad linearity of civilization's destruction of the natural
world has been interrupted only by symptoms of self-destruction in the
social sphere, in the form of wars. And when we recall with B.D. Smith
(1995) that domestication is "the creation of a new form of plant and
animal," it becomes obvious that genetic engineering and cloning are
anything but strange aberrations from the norm.
The contrast with thousands of generations of forager (hunter-gatherer)
life is staggering. There is no dispute that these ancestors put sharing at the
center of their existence. Throughout the anthropological literature,
sharing and equality are synonymous with the forager social
organization, characterized as bands of 50 or fewer people. In the
absence of mediation or political authority, people enjoyed strong
expressive bonds face-to-face with one another and in intimacy with nature.
Hewlett and Lamb (2000) explored the levels of trust and compas-
sion in an Aka band of foragers in central Africa. The physical and
emotional closeness between Aka children and adults, they concluded, is
closely related to their benign orientation to the world. Conversely, Aka
people see their environment as generous and supportive, at least in part,
because of the unrestricted bonds among themselves. Colin Turnbull
observed a very similar reality among the Mbuti in Africa, who
addressed greetings to "Mother Forest, Father Forest."
Agriculture is the founding model for all the systematic authoritar-
ianism that followed, certainly including capitalism, and initiating the
subjugation of women. Very early farming settlements contained "as many
as 400 people" (Mithen et al, 2000). We know that expanding population
was not a cause of agriculture but its result; this suggests a basic dynamic
of the population problem. It appears that societies organized on a truly
human scale fell victim to the exigencies of domestication. It may be that
we can only solve the planet's overpopulation problem by removing the
root cause of basic estrangement from one another. With the advent of
domestication, reproduction was not only rewarded economically; it
also offered a compensation or consolation for so much that had been
eradicated by civilization.
Amid the standardizing, disciplinary effects of today's systems of
Running On Emptiness
technology and capital, we are subjected to an unprecedented barrage of
images and other representations. Symbols have largely crowded out
everything real and direct, both in the daily round of interpersonal
interactions and in the accelerating extinction of nature. This state of
affairs is generally accepted as inevitable, especially since received wisdom
dictates that symbol-making is the cardinal, defining quality of a
human being. We learn as children that all behavior, and culture itself,
depend on symbol manipulation; this characteristic is what separates us
from mere animals.
But a close look at Homo over our many, many millennia chal-
lenges the inexorability or "naturalness" of the dominance of symbols in
our lives today. New discoveries are making newspaper headlines with
increasing frequency. Archaeologists are finding that more than a million
years ago, humans were as intelligent as ourselves — despite the fact that
the earliest evidence to date of symbolic activity (figurines, cave art,
ritual artifacts, time recordings, etc.) date to only 40,000 years ago
or so. People used fire for cooking 1.9 million years ago; and built and
sailed seagoing vessels at least 800,000 years ago!
These people must have been very intelligent; yet they left no tan-
gible trace of symbolic thought until relatively recently. Likewise, although
our ancestors of a million years ago had the I.Q. to enslave each other
and destroy the planet, they refrained from doing so, until symbolic culture
got going. Civilization advocates are making a concerted effort to find
evidence of symbol use at a much earlier time, paralleling the unsuccessful
effort in recent decades to locate evidence that would overturn the new
anthropological paradigm of pre-agriculrural harmony and well being.
So far, their searches have not borne fruit.
There is an enormous time gap between clear signs of mental capacity
and clear signs of any symbolizing at all. This discrepancy casts
serious doubt on the adequacy of a definition of humans as essentially
symbol makers. The apparent congruence between the beginnings of
representation and the beginnings of what is unhealthy about our
species seems even more important. Basic questions pretty much formulate
One such question concerns the nature of representation. Foucault
argued that representation always involves a power relation. There may
No Way Out?
be a connection between representation and the power imbalance that
is created when division of labor takes over human activity. In a similar
vein, it is difficult to see how large social systems could have come about
in the absence of symbolic culture. At a minimum, they appear to be
Jack Goody (1997) referred to "the continuing pressure to repre-
sent." Along with an easily identified impulse to communicate, is there
not also something much less positive going on? For all those genera-
tions before civilization, folks did many things with their minds — including
communicating — but they didn't get symbolic about it. To re-present reality
involves a move to a complete, closed system, of which language is the
most obvious example and perhaps the original instance. Whence this will
to create systems, to name and to count? Why this dimension that looks
suspiciously like instrumental reason, with its essentially dominating
Language is routinely portrayed as a natural and inevitable part of
our evolution. Like division of labor, ritual, domestication, religion?
Complete the progression and we see that the end of the biosphere
and total alienation are likewise "natural" and "inevitable." Whether or
not there can be a way out of the symbolic order is the pressing ques-
"In the beginning was the Word" — the convening of the symbolic
domain. After Eden's freedom was revoked, Adam named the animals
and the names were the animals. In the same way, Plato held that the
word creates the thing. There is a moment of linguistic agreement, and
from then on a categorized frame is imposed on all phenomena. This
pact attempts to override the "original sin" of language, which is the
separation of speech and world, words and things.
Many languages start out rich in verbs, but are gradually undone by
the more common imperialism of the noun. This parallels the movement to
a steadily more reified world, focusing on objects and goals at the
expense of process. In similar fashion, the vivid naturalism of cave art
gives way to an impoverished, stylized aesthetic. In both cases, the
symbolic deal is sweetened by the promise of an enticing richness, but in
each case the long-term results are deadly. Symbolic modes may begin
with some freshness and vitality, but eventually reveal their actual
novertv. their inner loeic
Running On Emptiness
The innate sensual acuity of human infants steadily atrophies as
they grow and develop in interaction with a symbolic culture that con-
tinues to infiltrate and monopolize most aspects of our lives. A few
remnants of the unmediated, the direct still survive. Lovemaking, close
relationships, immersion in wild nature, and the experience of birth and
death awaken our senses and our intelligence, stimulating an unaccustomed
hunger. We long for something other than the meager, artificial world of re-
presentation, with its second-hand pallor.
Communication remains open to those invigorating flashes that
pass, nonverbally, between people. All the crabbed, crimped, condi-
tioned channels might be chucked, because we can't live on what's
available. As levels of pain, loss, and emptiness rise, the reigning appa-
ratus pumps out ever more unsatisfying, unsustaining lies.
Referring to telepathy, Sigmund Freud wrote in his New Introduc-
tory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, "One is led to a suspicion that this is the
original, archaic method of communication." Enculturated down to
his toes, Freud didn't celebrate this suspicion, and seemed to fear the
life force that accompanied such non-cultural dynamics. Laurens van
der Post (e.g. The Lost World of the Kalahari, 1958) related several first-
hand observations of telepathic communication, over considerable dis-
tances, among the people who used to be called "Bushmen." M.
Pobers and Richard St. Barbe Baker, also writing in the 1950s, wit-
nessed telepathy by indigenous people before they were colonized by
civilization. I mention this in passing as one glimpse of the reality of
the non-symbolic, a direct connection that actually existed not long ago,
and that could be revived amid the ruins of representation.
Language and art may have originally appeared and united in
ritual, a cultural innovation intended to bridge a new separation
between people and their world. The term "animism" is often used,
dismissively or even pejoratively, to describe the belief that nonhuman
beings and even objects are inhabited by "spirits." Just as the term
"anarchism" is a summary description of anarchy, a pervasive viewpoint or
state of being that rejects hierarchy, "animism" fails to capture the
transformative quality of a shared awareness. In the case of anarchy,
there is an awareness that living in equality with with other humans
necessitates the rejection of all forms of domination, including leadership
and political representation. "Animism" refers to
No Way Out?
the extension of that awareness to other life forms and even to "inani-
mate" dwellers on the planet such as rocks, clouds, and rivers. The fact
that there is no word related to animism, analogous to anarchy, is an
index of how distanced we are from this awareness, in our present
state. Green anarchy explicitly states that anarchy must embrace the
community of living beings, and in this sense takes a step toward re-
awakening this awareness.
Did humans lose the awareness of belonging to an earthly commu-
nity of living beings with the advent of domestication, division of labor,
and agriculture? The construction of monuments and the beginnings of
animal and human sacrifice would tend to support this hypothesis.
Characteristically, the scapegoated victim is held responsible for communal
misfortune and suffering, while the fundamental reasons for the
community's loss go unrecognized and unmitigated. Ritual involves
"enormous amounts of energy" (Knight in Dunbar, Knight and Power,
1999); it is usually loud, multimediated, emotional, and redundant, tes-
tifying to the felt depth of the underlying crisis.
The movement from animism to ritual parallels the transformation
of small, face-to-face groups into large, complex societies. Culture takes
over, with specialized professionals in charge of the realm of the sacred.
The longing for that original feeling of communion with other beings
and egalitarian intimacy with one's fellow humans can never be appeased by
ritual activities developed within a hierarchical social system. This
tendency culminates in the teachings of transcendant religions, that
since the meaning of our lives has nothing to do with life on earth, we
should pin our hopes on a heavenly reward. Conversely, as with the
Aka and Mbuti described above, feelings of oneness with the earth and
all its inhabitants, and a sense of the joy and meaningfulness of
existence, seem to flourish when we humans live in egalitarian, face-to-
Returning to language, an agreed-upon banality is that reality is always
inherently disclosed through language — that in fact reality is decisively
mediated by language. Postmodernism ups this ante in two ways.
Because language is basically a self -referential system, PM avers, language
cannot really involve meaning. Further, there is only language (as there
is only civilization); there is no escape from a world defined by language
games (and domestication). But archaeological and ethno-
Running On Emptiness
graphic evidence shows clearly that human life has existed outside rep-
resentation, and nothing definitively precludes humans from living that
way again — however devoutly the postmodernists, in their accommodation
to the system, may pray that this just cannot be.
The ultimate in representation is the current "society of the specta-
cle" described so vividly by Guy Debord. We now consume the image
of living; life has passed into the stage of its representation, as specta-
cle. At the same time that technology offers virtual reality to the indi-
vidual, the ensemble of electronic media creates a virtual community, an
advanced symbolic state of passive consumption and learned help-
But the balance sheet for the ruling order shows a mixed forecast.
For one thing, representation in the political sector is met with skepti-
cism and apathy similar to that evinced by representation in general.
Has there ever been so much incessant yammer about democracy, and
less real interest in it? To represent or be represented is a degradation, a
reduction, both in the sense of symbolic culture and in terms of power.
Democracy, of course, is a form of rule. Partisans of anarchy
should know this, though leftists have no problem with governance.
Anarcho-syndicalists and other classical anarchists fail to question any
of the more fundamental institutions, such as division of labor, domes-
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To quote Riddley Walker again, as an antidote: "I cud feal some
thing growing in me it wer like a grean sea surging in me it wer saying,
LOSE IT. Saying, LET GO. Saying, THE ONL YES POWER IS NO
POWER." The heart of anarchy.
Heidegger, in Discourse on Thinking, counseled that an attitude of
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being imperiled by it." An anti-authoritarian orientation does not
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